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Carroll County schools to suspend hybrid learning immediately amid rising coronavirus numbers

Carroll County Public Schools will move back from hybrid to virtual learning starting Thursday, Nov. 19.

Board of Education members voted unanimously during a special meeting Wednesday evening to cease in-person learning for the vast majority of students, due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in the area.

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Superintendent Steve Lockard made the recommendation and suggested the board reconvene Dec. 2 to reevaluate. If numbers improve, students could return the following Monday, he said. And all board members voted in agreement with the plan.

Board members, however, decided to allow some small groups to continue attending CCPS facilities under the hybrid model, such as career and tech students and special programs like the BELLS Program (Preschool Autism Program), BEST Program, Carroll Springs School, Post-Secondary Program and PREP Program (for 3- and 4-year-old students). Approximately 750 student will still be attending school.

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Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, an ex-officio member of the school board, recommended reevaluating “both ways” and the board agreed. So if numbers worsen, the school system can cut back on in-person learning for the special programs.

Frazier also asked that all students be required to wear masks. Currently, there are some with certain conditions who are not wearing masks. Nicholas Shockney, director of special education, said he cautions the board on making exclusion rules on certain students.

During the more than two hours of discussion before voting, several board members expressed disappointment that hybrid learning would be suspended given that schools are doing such a good job mitigating spread within the buildings. Board member Ken Kiler suggested reevaluating weekly, if necessary. Fellow board member Patricia Dorsey said she was concerned about the consistency of in-person and virtual learning.

Hybrid learning for elementary and middle school students started Oct. 19. Hybrid learning for high schools was put on hold until Nov. 12 due to staffing. When board members met for the regular November meeting on Nov. 11, Ed Singer, Carroll’s health officer, recommended to delay hybrid learning for high schoolers.

However, board members voted to allow high school students to return to the buildings last week, but noting that it was likely virtual learning would be implemented just seven days later.

Board members initially agreed to follow metrics set by Maryland that stated 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.

Carroll has surpassed those numbers.

During the week of Oct. 18 to 24, the week elementary and middle school students started hybrid learning, the weekly average for cases per day per 100,000 people was 5.5. It rose to 8.6 the following week. And again to 12.7 during the week of Nov. 1. Last week, it rose to 19.6, Singer said on Wednesday.

As of Wednesday, that numbers was up to 23, he said.

There were 65 new cases during the week of Oct. 18, according to Singer’s presentation to the board last week. That number has more than tripled. There were 150 new cases during the first week of November, and it rose to 231 just last week. Already, more than 150 total cases have been reported this week. Singer called it an “uncontrolled spread.”

Carroll’s positivity rate, reported as a seven-day rolling average, was 5.78% through Tuesday. That’s the highest it has been since June 5, when far less testing was being done.

With positivity rates over 5% and more than 15 cases per 100,000, Maryland State Department of Education’s guidelines say that schools should have “limited or no in-person programs” for schools.

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Singer said on average three people are becoming infected per hour.

“And that’s a lot for a jurisdiction our size,” he said.

The health officer said a rise in COVID-19 cases, has caused the Carroll County Health Department to resort to using a state contractor, NORC and its call center in Chicago to help with tracing close contacts. The contact tracing numbers were too much for the department to handle alone.

However, he said on Wednesday that NORC is also having trouble keeping up and “not able to make all the calls in a timely manner.”

The school system has only one documented in-school transmission, or, in other words, one outbreak, which happened at Robert Moton. Lockard said on Wednesday that outbreak has been cleared.

However Donna Sivigny, board of education president, said there may be one more transmission soon to be documented.

The school system’s new COVID-19 dashboard showed 40 students and staff currently have the virus. Thirty-one are students and nine are staff. As of Wednesday afternoon, the dashboard also showed 115 people have coronavirus-like symptoms. Of the 115, 50 are staff and 65 are students. The school system only shows active cases and symptoms. Once a case is cleared, the dashboard no longer reflects the case.

Lockard said the dashboard does not reflect students and staff who are scheduled for virtual learning.

Almost 150 teachers and staff right are in some phase of quarantine because they are considered a close contact, Lockard said on Wednesday. And 337 students in the system are in quarantine for the same reason.

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