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Health officer: Carroll County Public Schools should wait on return to in-person instruction

Carroll County’s Board of Education is scheduled to make another decision between virtual and hybrid learning on Monday night. The county’s top-ranking health official is advising against sending Carroll County Public Schools students back inside buildings.

Board members agreed at a previous school board meeting to use Jan. 7 as a tentative date to resume hybrid learning, which gives all students the opportunity to attend school in person twice each week. But the board also set up a special meeting for Jan. 4 to review the current COVID-19 case numbers and discuss the situation before committing to the hybrid restart.

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Health Officer Ed Singer is expected to speak and present relevant statistics at the meeting. Carroll County saw more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 over the final 17 days 2020, according to Carroll County Heath Department data. Carroll’s case rate per 100,000 in population has been roughly double the number recommended by the Maryland State Department of Education for in-person learning .

“We’re not anywhere close to the level of transmission where anyone would recommend sending large numbers of kids back to school,” Singer said on Dec. 23.

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Board member Tara Battaglia said last week it was too soon to say what her vote will be.

“It’s hard to make any decision when new numbers are not in front of me,” she said.

Ken Kiler, the board’s vice president, declined to comment for the story, saying the board president should be the spokesperson for the group.

Board President Marsha Herbert declined to comment, citing previous coverage she described as negative. Board members Donna Sivigny and Patricia Dorsey did not respond to requests for comment.

The board is not obligated to follow recommendations made by Singer or MSDE. Singer advised against allowing high school students to return to hybrid learning in November. The board decided to send them back for a week, citing mental health concerns and a short notice to students, but reversed course the following week as community transmissions increased.

The Carroll County Board of Education is shown in a screenshot from the live stream of its Nov. 18 meeting.
The Carroll County Board of Education is shown in a screenshot from the live stream of its Nov. 18 meeting.

The board also allowed winter high school sports to begin, citing mental health concerns once again, though Singer suggested it was not a good idea. Practice began Dec. 14 and games are slated to begin Wednesday.

Singer said he agrees the focus should be on sending kids back to the classroom, but that he does not believe that this is the right moment.

“I think the right message is that we need to be prepared and working toward that but not until we get close to some reasonable metrics of community transmission,” he said. “I just think that there’s too much of a risk of making this spread even more in the community.”

Carroll County legislators sent a letter to the state superintendent Dec. 28 calling for an in-person learning plan from Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE).

During a first quarter when many students switched between in-person and virtual learning, failing grades skyrocketed. Approximately 6,000 more F’s were given and nearly 11,000 fewer A’s were earned during the first marking period compared with last year’s first quarter. The 2020 first quarter ended Nov. 11.

“This is the reason why we’ve been pushing so hard to try to get kids in person, in the classroom as much as possible,” Sivigny said during a Dec. 9 meeting about the grades. “It completely backs up everything we’ve been trying to do.”

MSDE encouraged school systems to have in-person learning plans with safety measures in place in July, according to Lora Rakowski, spokesperson for MSDE. The state’s education and health department stated the following month that systems should reevaluate its in-person plans if new case rates increase by 2 per 100,000 or positivity rates increase by 1.5% within two weeks.

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“Although the positivity rate, along with the new case rate per 100,000 population, are core indicators as to whether schools should open or close, they are not intended to be absolute determinants,” Rakowski said.

Community case rates have been on the rise in the last few months. However, in-school transmissions appeared to be minimal during hybrid learing. Carroll County Public Schools had at least two outbreaks and majority private schools in the county that have in-person learning have seen few cases.

The health officer said although there is disagreement in the scientific community about whether the virus is being spreading in the schools, just operating schools is difficult when there is so much spread in the community. He applauded the school system for allowing small groups to have in-person learning, but reiterated that it doesn’t make sense to bring in the much larger groups.

“In order to do the hybrid model that we did, the superintendent had to pull all kinds of central office staff out and put them in classrooms,” Singer said. “I’m just not sure if you’re not getting ... someone who’s been in central office for 15 years. I’m not sure how effective that is. But that’s not my area of expertise.”

Whatever the board decides, Devanshi Mistry, the student representative on the board, hopes they stick to it. She said at the Dec. 2 meeting staff should make sure students receive mental health support regardless of the learning mode.

Times editor Bob Blubaugh contributed to this report.

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