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CDC changes guidance on close contacts, but Carroll County Public Schools expects little impact

Federal public health experts have changed their guidance relating to the spread of COVID-19 during close contacts, but Carroll County Public Schools is not expecting much impact on its protocols.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention originally defined a close contact as someone who spent 15 minutes within six feet of someone who tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. As of Wednesday, it now considers spending time with someone who is positive for a total of 15 minutes over a course of 24 hours can make one a close contact. A person in that situation should quarantine, according to the revised guidance.

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With Carroll students now back in classrooms this week for hybrid learning — for many, the first time since the coronavirus pandemic closed schools in March — the CDC change could have implications for schools. But a CCPS official does not expect meaningful change.

“It’s fundamentally not changing our operational practices at all,” Karl Streaker, director of student services, said in an interview Friday, adding that students are still expected to be at least six feet apart and to wear masks.

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What’s important about the close contact definition change, Streaker said, is that it heightens everyone’s awareness to maintain social distancing and to wear face coverings.

What will change in public schools, Streaker said, is the way clinical staff evaluate the cases of those with potential COVID-19 symptoms, or people who are “under investigation.” He said CCPS officials contacted school nurses and health personnel after the CDC news came out.

The student services director said CDC and state guidelines have changed before, and this most recent change does not affect cases that were confirmed before the CDC’s Wednesday announcement. For example, he said a close contact list from the past will not be added to with people considered close contacts under the new definition.

“The way we have implemented new changes is moving forward,” Streaker said. “It’s not realistic for us to go back.”

Streaker said the school system has been in contact with the Carroll County Health Department and Ed Singer, the county’s health officer, about the change.

Singer presented the close contact news to the county commissioners at their Thursday meeting. His department hasn’t changed anything in their contact tracing process yet, he said, but it’s likely the state’s health department will change the entire contact tracing process.

He said the health department and school system are monitoring the data on weekly cases among community members not living in facilities like nursing homes or group homes. If that rate increases by a high enough percentage over a certain time, he said, they must evaluate if the schools are the reason for the uptick “and whether or not we need to consider doing things differently.”

“As I said the last couple weeks, the younger folks tend to be the ones right now that when we see an uptick, that they’re getting it first,” Singer said.

Educators reported that the first two days of in-person classes were successful, though there were reports of COVID-like symptoms among the school community. Streaker said he would not answer how many positive COVID-19 cases were reported this week across the entire school system.

Singer said on Thursday that the health department are discussing with the state’s legal counsel about what they can and cannot disclose to the public about cases in schools. It sparked some concern among the county commissioners who said the public has the right to know.

Singer told the commissioners that anyone who would need to know would be notified.

Superintendent Steve Lockard said Wednesday that about 70% of students are participating in hybrid learning, while 30% are completely virtual.

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Of the 2,000 teachers in the school system, 481 teachers are teaching in person on the elementary level and 61 are teaching all or partially online. The elementary schools have five long-term substitute teachers, Cynthia McCabe, chief of schools, said in an interview Thursday evening.

She said 271 teachers are teaching in person on the middle school level, while 39 are all or partially virtual. The middle schools have seven long-term substitutes.

As of Friday, the county health department reports that 30 people 9 years old and younger have tested positive for the coronavirus in Carroll to date, as well as 188 people between the ages of 10 and 19. They make up about 15% of all positive cases among community members countywide.

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