Carroll County Public Schools began bringing students back into buildings in small groups in the second week of this school year, first a few hundred in career and technology, then nearly 200 in special education.
While the purpose of the small groups is to reintroduce some of the populations most adversely affected by not having in-person learning, it also has had a side benefit of giving CCPS practical experience in dealing with coronavirus-related situations likely to regularly occur after the school system reopens to all students later this month.
“We’re learning a lot,” Karl Streaker, director of student services, said in an interview, noting that he has had more nurses than needed working in every school that is currently hosting students, “so they could experience these scenarios as they happen."
“Moving from theory and planning to practice is always a challenge, and the nurses have been spot-on,” he said. “We overstaffed the schools because I wanted our staff to learn.”
An early challenge presented itself Sept. 21, when school officials learned that a student attending the Carroll County Career and Technology Center had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Because that was a Monday, the student hadn’t physically been in the school for some 72 hours, making the situation easier to address.
“Every case is going to be different,” Streaker said. “We followed our protocols to identify students who were in close contact of the student and notified those families directly, and they got picked up. ... We provided all the students who were in close contact a letter, informing them of things they should do, preventatively and whatnot, from the health department.”
He said the school system collaborated with the Carroll County Health Department after the positive test revelation, creating a line list of close contacts that provided phone numbers and other contact information to the health department.
Streaker said fewer than five students were identified as close contacts, declining to be more specific for reasons of confidentiality. For the same reason, he did not disclose the current condition of the student who tested positive.
The timing of this case, coming as it did after a weekend, lessened what needed to be done in terms of sanitizing the building or moving students to other classrooms, Streaker said.
“In that situation, because the student hadn’t been in the space the previous 48 hours, there weren’t any specific protocols, like evacuating the room, that had to come into play,” he said. “The room had already been cleaned, per our protocols, over the weekend.”
Streaker said CCPS will send home courtesy letters to all students who’ve been in a classroom with someone who is symptomatic or tests positive notifying them but also noting that they don’t meet the criteria for close contact. Families of students who do meet those criteria will receive a direct phone call from a nurse and will be followed up with a phone call from the health department.
Streaker said it should be rare that a student tests positive during school or after attending that day.
“That shouldn’t happen because we shouldn’t have a student in the school who is awaiting results of a COVID test” after experiencing symptoms, he said. But, he added, it could happen in situations where asymptomatic students get tested for some other reason, “for example if somebody is having surgery.”
If that does happen, the protocols go beyond informing families and isolating students.
“If we found a student was positive or symptomatic, let’s say Monday night, we would identify the classroom spaces they were in, close those classrooms down, and provide as much ventilation as we could and follow our cleaning protocols,” Streaker said. “Those rooms would then be unavailable for instruction on Tuesday and they’d be cleaned on Wednesday. Depending on the timing, the impact of that is going to be much more significant. If we find out on a Tuesday evening, we’d have a Wednesday to clean that classroom before Thursday morning.”
Under the hybrid plan that CCPS plans to launch Oct. 19, Wednesday will be the day during the week when all students learn online and buildings are sanitized. Half of the students are to attend in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the other half attending on Thursdays and Fridays.
Students who become symptomatic during the school day, as well as their close contacts, are isolated and sent home. “In general,” he said, because of social distancing, “we don’t have many close contacts.”
Streaker also noted that the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test for COVID-19 is the one CCPS is requiring. A negative rapid antigen test will not release students or close contacts from quarantine.
At Wednesday’s Carroll County Board of Education meeting, Vice President Marsha Herbert praised the way staff handled the positive test at the Tech Center.
Jason Anderson, director of performance, equity and accountability, said the school system has had “a very successful experience” in bringing students back in specialized programs. He noted the one exposure, but that “overall it’s been great.”
Anderson said the initial return to the Tech Center, which began Sept. 14, included 248 students over 12 programs. The next phase of students returning is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 5, when some 300 career and technology students in eight more programs are expected to resume in-person instruction. These students are required to wear masks, and 6-foot distancing is being followed wherever possible.
In terms of special education students, 173 students have returned to various buildings in the first phase and another 70 or so are expected to return Monday.
Nick Shockney, CCPS director of special education, told the board that getting small groups of his students back into schools has been a success, but has not been easy either for the students or the educators who have volunteered to come back and teach them.
“It has not been without challenge, and it does come with some risk,” Shockney said. “Not all families have chosen to continue.”
Additionally, Gateway School and Crossroads Middle — which provide an alternative educational opportunity for high school and middle school students, respectively demonstrating difficulties in areas of behavioral and emotional adjustment, according to the CCPS website — are slated to reopen Monday in a hybrid format with some 25 students attending on Mondays and Tuesdays and another 25 or so on Thursdays and Fridays in a small-scale version of what is planned to happen in all public schools in the county beginning Oct. 19.
Streaker echoed the several CCPS staffers who on Wednesday said CCPS is trying to continually emphasize through email and other communication with parents that it will take everyone working together to make returning to school buildings work.
“Our most important message is that if your child is not feeling well and has any of the symptoms, please stay home,” Streaker said. “We don’t want to be closing our spaces down and having kids have to quarantine. It’s going to be a big challenge if we don’t all kind of stick to that.
“Guidance is ever-changing, but we’re learning all the time.”