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CCPS could reassess hybrid learning at Nov. 11 school board meeting after recent spike in COVID-19 cases

The hybrid learning plan in use by Carroll County Public Schools could be reassessed at Wednesday night’s meeting of the Board of Education given that COVID-19 cases in Carroll have far surpassed the metrics discussed at previous board meetings when considering returning to schools.

Maryland State Department of Education guidelines state that schools should reassess its openings if the new case rate increases an additional two case per 100,000 within two weeks or if there is a positivity rate increase of 1.5% within two weeks. School board members agreed to follow this guidance.

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Maggie Kunz of Carroll’s health department said during the week of Oct. 18 to 24 the weekly average for cases per day per 100,000 was 5.5. It rose to 8.6 the following week. And again to 12.7 during the week of Nov. 2.

Wednesday’s meeting will be the board’s first since hybrid learning started Oct. 19, when elementary and middle school students were given the option of returning to classrooms for in-person education twice each week. CCPS has said some 70% of students are using that option. High school students are scheduled to return to school buildings for hybrid learning Thursday.

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Ed Singer, Carroll’s health officer, said in an interview Tuesday that he is not yet sure what his recommendation will be when he addresses the school board on Wednesday.

“I’m really kind of on the fence about this,” he said.

Carroll had been averaging about 68 cases per week since Aug. 30. But that number more than doubled last week and the county is on pace for a similar total this week.

Singer noted, however, that there has been only one documented case of in-school transmission.

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On Oct. 19, when hybrid learning began, 29 people 9 years old and younger and 188 in the 10-19 age group had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Through Monday, Nov. 9, four weeks later, the county health department reports that 42 people 9 and younger have tested positive, along with 229 aged 10-19, increases of 13 and 41 in those largely school-age groups.

By comparison, the 30 to 39 age range increased by 49 cases over that time frame, 50 to 59 by 70 and 60-69 by 54 as community cases have been rising dramatically in Carroll the past 2 1/2 weeks after having leveled out for about a month.

Singer cautioned the public against social gatherings with Carroll coming off its worst weekly report for new community cases of COVID-19, having seen 144 such cases last week. The county’s previous high had been 108, the week of July 26.

There have been 69 community cases this week, and 72 cases total, through Tuesday afternoon, putting Carroll on a similar pace to last week.

When the last BOE meeting was held on Oct. 14, Singer said Carroll had seen 69 new cases in the community for the entire week beginning Oct. 4. Carroll’s positivity rate, reported as a seven-day rolling average, was 2% at that point. It was at 3.84% on Sunday after reaching 3.88% Saturday, the highest it had been since July 6. The statewide rate rose to 5.05%.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, an ex-officio member of the school board, noted during that meeting cases were at 3.9 per 100,000 during the week of Sept. 20. Two weeks later, that number rose to 5.9 cases per 100,000.

“I don’t think the school system is ready to reopen in hybrid right now,” he said five days before hybrid began.

Board member Patricia Dorsey said during the last meeting that the data was troubling.

“It would have been much better if we were to start to see a more downward trend here,” she said. “I would certainly like to see us at a better place before bringing more of our folks back in the building.”

Superintendent Steve Lockard also noted at the time he was not comfortable with the metrics and Singer said during the Oct.14 that the increase bothered him.

He told board members that night that whatever they decided would be an unpopular decision. Singer told them their decision should be based on this question: “Is what you’re getting out of going back to hybrid worth the level of risk you’re taking?”

Late last week, the school system temporarily closed Learning for Independence (LFI) programs at Robert Moton Elementary School, Winfield Elementary School, Liberty High School and Mount Airy Middle School because of staff members either showing symptoms or testing positive. LFI is a special education program offering a certificate of completion for its students, many of whom have complex medical needs that may not be able to be met in their home schools, according to the CCPS website.

A week prior, the school system announced what Singer said remains its only documented in-school transmission, at Robert Moton.

Over the summer, the metric Singer and the board members discussed as guidelines for reopening were even lower than the ones talked about in October.

Singer said during an Aug. 26 meeting that if over a two-week period, the community is exceeding three community cases per 100,000 average on a daily basis, he would not be comfortable with reopening the schools for hybrid learning. That translates to about five community cases per day or 35 per week — roughly one-fourth the number Carroll saw last week.

The school board voted back in August on parameters they would set, before the state announced its own guidance. They said if the community keeps below 35 new cases in the community two weeks in a row, it would be acceptable to open for hybrid learning and that they would also monitor the positivity rate, the death rate in the community and ICU bed usage at Carroll Hospital.

“We said at the time that we adopted those metrics,” Board President Donna Sivigny said during the Oct. 14 meeting, “if the state came out with guidance, we would follow the state guidance.”

State guidance was less restrictive, so the BOE went forward with hybrid learning.

Singer told the county commissioners last Thursday that CCPS has had at least 10 people who tested positive for the virus so far. More than 70 are considered persons under investigation and at least 142 others have been quarantined.

“If you guys decide to reopen, regardless of what these numbers do, that you stay open unless the number of kids you got in isolation and quarantine makes the operation of the school impractical,” Singer said at the Aug. 26 school board meeting.

The Nov. 11 school board meeting begins at 5 p.m. and is livestreamed from the CCPS website. The third item on the agenda is COVID-19 update.

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