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Carroll County school system not ready to allow use of indoor facilities by rec sports programs

Carroll County’s young tackle football players were able to get back on the field three weeks ago after a COVID-19 pandemic-related hiatus. High school students who play fall sports in Carroll look like they’ll be playing again soon, too, after Thursday’s ruling by the state that high school sports may resume Oct. 7.

One group of athletes who still have no idea when they’ll be able to play, however, are youths who play indoor rec sports and rely on Carroll County Public Schools facilities.

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Carroll’s Board of Education discussed use of CCPS indoor facilities Wednesday evening and, while several board members expressed sympathy for those affected, made clear that because of safety and practical concerns, they would not be opening up their schools to outside groups anytime soon.

Jonathan O’Neal, the chief operating for CCPS, said Wednesday that while the school system has allowed the use of its outdoor fields for months, its Reopening and Recovery Plan doesn’t allow for indoor facility use such as gymnasiums traditionally used by rec programs for basketball and wrestling — at least at this point.

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He told the board that mitigating risk was “the general premise behind the decision made on use of facilities,” but that the system’s ability to help the county health department with contact tracing also contributed.

When groups use indoor space, protocol calls for sealing the space and sanitizing it, but it’s difficult to know exactly where people have been after school hours, he said, noting that the school system is responsible for ensuring the facilities are safe.

“In the past, community groups have been required to clean up after themselves,” O’Neal said. "They are very good about that in general, but in the COVID world we’re talking about very specific protocols, with approved solutions and cleaning products.

“It’s not splitting the atom ... but there are protocols and you should be through the training to do it.”

O’Neal said the school system has machines that use misting to apply sanitizing solutions that he wasn’t sure could be turned over for others to use. “It would be best that our folks do that,” he said.

From a practical standpoint, he said, once students return to school buildings in a hybrid format starting Oct. 19, with the rigorous cleaning protocols that will entail, CCPS won’t have the workforce needed to take care of the facilities for others, too.

“We don’t really have people in the buildings overnight; we’d have to look at how we would staff that,” he said. “I also have a concern, and you can say this about pretty much every part of the system right now [as we’re] moving to hybrid, so we’re not unique to this in building operations, but these folks have been working very hard for a long time. I consider them heroes.

“I’m not sure how we would support this if it grew to larger scale like before the pandemic unless we basically had them working seven days a week, essentially, not literally a third shift, but they’d have to be in there later at night to run the misting machine and that sort of thing.”

He added that, from the school system’s perspective, having outside groups in the schools complicates contact tracing and their ability to support the health department in that endeavor because they “won’t necessarily know everyone who was in the building for these kinds of uses, how they got there, who they rode with.”

Ray Prokop, director of facilities, said CCPS polled the 23 other school jurisdictions in Maryland and got responses from 16 of them, none of which are allowing general use of the facilities by typical user groups such as sports organizations.

“Essentially for the same reasons that Jon cited,” he said.

There have been exceptions to the use of CCPS indoor facilities. A single room at the Carroll County Career and Technology Center is used by a Carroll Community College adult learning program. And certain schools have allowed daycare providers that historically existed there to resume operations.

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But youth basketball players and wrestlers? There’s no guarantee they’ll be able to get on the CCPS courts or mats.

Marsha Herbert, the school board’s vice president and a longtime coach, reiterated her beliefs about the importance of sports, calling them “a big mental, social and emotional thing that our athletes need.”

“Winter’s coming and I know rec councils are going to need basketball areas,” she said before asking CCPS staff whether requests had already been made.

Prokop said, “We work with the rec councils, they understand the position of the plan that we have in place, so there has been no request because they know there’s no need to request at this point.”

Board member Ken Kiler, who has spent much of his life involved with rec wrestling programs, said he wants to allow programs to use the facilities — but only after students have successfully returned to buildings for in-person instruction.

“Everyone knows I have strong feelings about this,” Kiler said Wednesday. “But I do feel strongly we need to get open hybrid. For this, maybe by Thanksgiving, maybe sometime, we need to look at this hard and reevaluate it.

“As far as where it ranks and the order of things, it’s behind opening hybrid and it’s behind opening full. I fully understand why the plan was written like this and should have been, I just think we need to start considering at some point in time.”

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