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As Carroll County high schools open, new dashboard shows 37 COVID-19 cases within school system

A new coronavirus dashboard that went live online Thursday showed 37 people within Carroll’s public schools have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Seven are staff members and 30 are students.

Linton Springs has four cases, the most of the elementary schools, which mostly have none, and Sykesville Middle has three, the most of the middle schools. There are nine cases at South Carroll High School, the most of any school. High school students returned for hybrid learning Thursday.

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School board members voted Wednesday night to continue with hybrid learning, and begin it for high school students, despite a spike in community cases of COVID-19 that had the county’s health officer and CCPS staff members recommending against it.

Karl Streaker, the director of student services, said there are roughly 7,900 high school students in CCPS and they had approximately 1,550 in school on Thursday.

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Streaker said based on what parents said earlier, that’s about 55% of the number they would’ve expected earlier to be coming to school as some 33% had previously said they would be remaining fully virtually.

“If the [COVID-19] numbers wouldn’t have done what they’ve done, we’d have had at least twice as many kids today,” Streaker said. "It’s a difficult situation. If a family was on the fence, I think they went, “Let’s wait a week.”

School board members on Wednesday cited a lack of in-school COVID-19 transmission and timing for reasons to allow high school students to return to the classrooms the next day. The board will meet again Nov. 18 at 5 p.m. to decide whether to move into fully virtual learning systemwide, effective the following day. Only one in-school transmission has been documented so far.

The school system sent a letter to parents on Thursday explaining the board’s decision.

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“Based on the recommendations of the Carroll County Health Department, the rapid spread of COVID-19 throughout the community, and the rising positivity rate and number of cases, there is a strong likelihood that the school system will move to full virtual instruction for all grades should the metrics continue to escalate,” the letter stated.

The letter also stated parents and families should practice health habits like avoiding close contact with people, wearing face coverings over your mouth and nose as often as possible, hand washing, disinfect high-touch surfaces and staying home when sick.

According to the dashboard, the Career and Tech Center, Century, Manchester Valley, Westminster and Winters Mill have one case each. Francis Scott Key has two cases and Liberty has three. Gateway has zero.

The dashboard also lists those with COVID-like symptoms at 124 — 35 staff members and 89 students.

Returning high school students was initially scheduled for Oct. 19, like the middle and elementary schools. However, lack of staff availability delayed the return. But Streaker said the schools were staffed well enough for a full opening on Thursday.

Ed Singer, county health officer, told the Board of Carroll County Commissioners on Thursday that cases have gone up to 16.7 per 100,000 population and has a 4.8 positivity rate.

During the week of Oct. 18, the same week hybrid learning started, 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.

Singer said during Wednesday at the school board meeting that the uptick in cases can be attributed to events outside the school system: Halloween activities, sporting events and eating in restaurants.

The Carroll County community created and signed a petition on change.org calling to keep students in virtual learning after Carroll’s board of education members voted to move forward with hybrid learning.

“This decision not only puts the safety and well-being of students at risk, but likewise adds yet another layer of anxiety onto teachers already struggling with the stressful transition to the board’s ‘Hybrid Model,’ which forces educators to teach two classes simultaneously: one online and one in person,” the petition stated.

The petition has over 400 signatures from people who oppose the board’s current plan.

Eric Hirtle, parent of a 10th-grader, stood outside the CCPS’s central office on Wednesday holding a sign that said “flatten the fear open our schools.”

“Healthy people need to get back to their normal lives,” he said. “Students need to get back to school.”

He said his son is handling virtual learning well but others are not. He said he’s happy at least the younger students have hybrid learning.

Four other people who spoke at the school board’s public participation on Wednesday, who were all teachers, recommended the school system push back hybrid learning for high school students.

Tony Roman, a social studies teacher at Manchester Valley, said it isn’t a surprise the number of COVID cases are only growing. It’s something he and his students discussed in class.

“Hybrid needs to be put into a stop for a moment,” he said. “Teachers are in quarantine. Students are in quarantine. It’s' only going to get worse.”

Kathryn Henn, a kindergarten teacher at Manchester Elementary School, said she isn’t sure how much longer she’s going to be teaching.

“Nothing I have ever done is harder than what you are requiring teachers and staff to do right now,” she said.

She said she doesn’t look forward to going to work. She said they need to create a virtual school for all.

Gary Foote, a science teacher at South Carroll High School, said he wasn’t going to tell the board anything they don’t already know, and noted some of the latest metrics and case numbers. And he questioned whether the one documented in-school transmission was accurate.

“So why are we planning to open the high schools tomorrow?” he asked on Wednesday.

Paul Christiansen, a teacher at Northwest Middle School, noted some other counties in Maryland that have cases on the rise like Dorchester, Hartford, Allegany and Washington counties. He asked the school board to note the coronavirus data before making decisions.

He said he hoped they would delay reopening schools until a vaccine is available.

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