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Carroll County private schools sticking to protocols, seeing few positive COVID-19 cases

Private schools throughout Carroll County returned from winter break this month with plans to remain in-person until the end of the school year.

The health and safety guidelines implemented have proved effective, say school leaders, and few COVID-19 case numbers encouraged them to continue on the same path.

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John Polasko, president of Gerstell Academy, said students have returned to campus this week after spending a week learning virtually.

“We wanted to buy ourselves some time,” he said.

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Students and staff had winter break the week prior and had to show a negative test result before returning. Staff were tested on Wednesday and students were tested on Thursday and Friday.

Those who chose to be tested by the school, used saliva test kits the school received from a lab in Georgia. Polasko said the turnaround time is 24-36 hours. It costs $25 per kit and the money was reimbursed to the school after the test. Though each parent was charged through their health insurance.

Of Gerstell’s 400 students, three have tested positive since the winter break, and of its 200 staff members, about two or three tested positive for COVID-19, according to Polasko. There were a couple of outbreaks since the school year started but fewer than four people at a time were affected

Most students at Gerstell, in the elementary and middle school grades, attend school full-time while the high school students learn in a hybrid model. Polasko said over 80% of all students are learning on campus, and 10% more are opting in for in-person learning next semester starting at the end of the month.

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Ms. Carey Wargo, Head of Gerstell Academy Middle School, provides a temperature check for an arriving student
Ms. Carey Wargo, Head of Gerstell Academy Middle School, provides a temperature check for an arriving student (Courtesy photo)

Carroll County Public Schools returned to hybrid learning last week. The success of Gerstell and other private schools in the community have been used as a comparison, particularly among those who made the argument to return to the classroom.

Polasko said the comparisons are “apples and oranges” noting the enrollment numbers and Gerstell’s ability to provide testing mandates.

Jo Marie Tolj, principal of St. John Catholic School in Westminster, also kept students virtual at the beginning of the year, but only for the first three days. They returned Jan. 7 for full-time instruction, and she said they are doing well.

Students are screened before entering the building with temperature checks and answering a questionnaire. Surfaces are highly sanitized and they are following guidelines form the CDC and Maryland State Department of Education.

“My staff had a few that had to quarantine,” she said. “I still have some students on quarantine because of the exposure during the break.”

However, none have brought the virus inside the school, she said.

Tolj said the school is not requiring negative test results before coming to campus. However, if students or staff exposed to the virus do not want to quarantine for 14 days, they can provide a negative test result and quarantine or isolate for 10 days instead.

“And 100% of my staff is excited to be here,” she said, adding that she has not lost any teachers.

She also added that St. John, with students in preschool to eighth grade, is easier to manage, compared to a public school. Students do not switch classrooms, they do not use a cafeteria and the nearly 300 students do not mingle with students outside their cohorts.

Jodi Lupco, head of school at Montessori School of Westminster, said prior to winter break, one student tested positive for the virus after contacting someone who was asymptomatic. They shut down the classroom.

“We did notice that there are several families who chose to go to distance learning last week because they had traveled,” she said.

And during the break, Lupco said two students contracted the virus from family members.

She said families are being diligent about monitoring their health and communicating with the school. The school also told parents they must produce a negative test result after traveling or quarantine. Children who had any COVID-19 symptoms must produce a doctor’s note or show a negative test before returning.

Many Gilbart, principal of Carroll Lutheran School, said students returned to the classroom for full-time learning Jan. 4 and they do not have any positive cases inside the school community. Families had to quarantine, she said, but the students in the families did not test positive for the virus.

Gilbart said their protocols and safety guidelines for the 120 students seem to be working. On top of the masks and social distancing regulations, families are also required to fill out a trip request form and produce a negative test or quarantine after a trip.

For the most part, families are not traveling, so students do not have to miss school.

The CLS principal said parents often call with questions regarding how to handle various pandemic-related scenarios. But she doesn’t mind. She’d rather have communication and transparency then have a parent risk spreading the virus inside the school.

“That’s part of why we have maintained a healthy school community,” she said.

Saint John’s Catholic Prep, a high school in Frederick County with 14.5% of its students from Carroll County, has offered hybrid learning Monday through Thursday since the school year started. About 10% are learning fully online and all students have asynchronous learning on Fridays.

Nancy Fay, the school’s director of advancement, said the enrollment office receives calls daily from interested families who they are happy to accommodate. She said a student who previously attended Francis Scott Key High School has transferred there this year.

When the state recommended schools to shut down, the Buckeystown Catholic school was able to switch gears quickly with resources put in place ahead of time. A reopening task force was created and the nearly 300 students had the option to learn in person twice a week since September.

No cases or in-school transmissions have caused them to shut down. However, as a precaution, the school decided to implement virtual learning for all the week after Thanksgiving. They were virtual again for two weeks after Christmas.

Mary Beth O’Boyle, the school’s infection control coordinator, said they do not require everyone to produce a negative test result before coming on campus because it does not makes sense to do so. She said anyone can be exposed at any time, but she said students undergo health screenings.

“All of it has worked so far,” she said. “Knock, knock on wood.”

Principal Will Knotek said he is hesitant to set a metric or date to return to full-time in-person learning.

“All I can say is that we are working with the health department very closely,” he said.

Lorraine Fulton, head of school at Springdale Preparatory School in New Windsor, said two or three of the school’s 60 or so students, are out due to minor athletic injuries. The school, with students in grades 6 to 12, is still having hybrid learning and will continue doing so unless they determine down the line it is no longer necessary.

Matthew Reisberg, principal of Carroll Christian Schools, said students held a week of distance learning the first week of January “to ensure tat there are not any symptoms before everyone comes back together.”

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After the first semester, he reported there were no “COVID issues” among the nearly 330 students and they plan to continue with in-person classes five days a week for the rest of the school year.

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The school has implemented temperature checks, mask-wearing and place barriers inside of classrooms.

North Carroll Community School plans to also continue with in-person learning for the rest of the school year “unless there is a scenario in which the health department or MSDE would force us to do otherwise,” Sam Havighurst, school administrator, said in an email.

The school implemented a daily symptom checker for parents to use before nearly 150 students arrive to campus as well as daily disinfecting and frequent handwashing breaks. The school does not allow anyone, other than students and staff, inside the building. They are screened each day with temperature checks and questionnaires.

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