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Coronavirus protocols could change in schools if cases drop, says Carroll County’s health official

Carroll County’s top-ranking health official said the protocols after a student or staff member is exposed to COVID-19 could look different once case rates drop significantly and in-person learning resumes.

Health Officer Ed Singer said during Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting that if cases return to 15 cases per 100,000 cases or below, he’d like to treat “the COVID-like illnesses a little differently than we had been.” That could mean shorter quarantine times. The health department implemented new guidelines for the public on Thursday based on revised CDC guidelines.

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He noted that when Carroll County Public Schools was operating under a hybrid format, the protocols caused trouble with staffing in the classrooms. Case rates in Carroll were at 22.8 per 100,000 through Friday.

“The state has given us a little flexibility trying to do some interpretation with this and I’m not prepared to talk about exactly what that would look like” but the goal is to keep students and staff in school, Singer said.

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The health officer said when case rates are lower, there’s a greater chance the symptoms a student or staff member have are not from the coronavirus. But he’ll need students and staff to receive a test quickly to rule it out since transmission is high within the first four or five days.

Singer said they are also looking to give staff exemptions from quarantining if they have been exposed, noting it will help with staffing in the classrooms. They allow the same exemptions for other professions, he said. He suggested an exempted staff member should still monitor their symptoms and make minimal contact with others.

“I’m glad to hear we’re making progress on that front,” Board president Donna Sivigny said.

“I do want to make it clear we are taking a slightly greater amount of risk,” he said, adding if a person does have COVID-19 they still need to quarantine.

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Board members and the superintendent raised yellow and red cards when they had a question or comment and waited on Sivigny to call on them before speaking.

When called on, board member Tara Battaglia said the board has received a lot of emails from the community asking why the private schools are allowed to offer in-person instruction despite the state’s metrics and Maryland State Department of Education’s guidance that cases increasing by two per 100,000 or jumping in positivity rate by 1.5% within two weeks call for reassessing in-person learning.

Singer said all schools are supposed to be following the MSDE guidance. However, the state’s secretary of health, told health officers not to enforce it on private schools.

“I find it difficult to order the private schools to be closed because the secretary of health is my boss, wrote us a memo saying don’t do it,” he said.

Singer said from a public health standpoint, it would make sense for everyone to follow the guidance.

John Polasko, president of Gerstell Academy, said in an interview on Friday that students in middle and high school will not return to class until January.

Students were off for an entire week after Thanksgiving to give time for potential symptoms to show from possible exposure during the holiday. Elementary schoolers will return to the building on Monday. In the meantime, all students and staff have to produce a negative test result by Monday in order to return. Tests were being given at the school on Thursday and Friday.

School will start again on Jan. 4 after winter break, however, “the first week is going to be fully remote,” Polasko said. He added it will give time to have all the testing done.

Students will again have to produce a negative test result before walking on campus and the plan is for students to return in person Jan. 11.

The school system and health department created a dashboard to show how many students and staff had COVID-19 and how many had coronavirus-like symptoms.

During the week of Nov. 11, 30 students and seven staff members tested positive for the virus while 35 staff and 89 students had symptoms. The following week, 31 students and nine staff members tested positive while 50 staff and 65 students had symptoms.

Superintendent Steve Lockard said at Wednesday’s meeting they are no longer updating the dashboard while students are virtual, though approximately 750 students remain in the building, many of whom are in special education.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, an ex-officio member of the school board, asked if the board should reevaluate having those students attend in-person learning because he’s heard from concerned staff numbers.

Lockard said they are trying to make it as safe as possible and programs are shutdown when cases escalate.

Nick Shockney, the director of special education, said having in-person services come with risks but staff are working hard.

“You’re still satisfied that it’s safe for everyone involved in those programs?” Frazier asked.

Shockney said it’s been the board’s direction to implement our special programs, and Frazier re-asked the question.

“I’ll be frank, I don’t know if it’s for me to answer,” Shockney said.

The school board voted to return to virtual learning for all, except the 750 students in special programs. However, they voted to start winter sport practices Dec. 14, and plan to reconvene Jan. 4 to decide if students should return to the classrooms Jan. 7.

The school system had its second coronavirus outbreak at Hampstead Elementary where four staff members and one student tested positive, according to Carey Gaddis, spokesperson for the public schools.

Maggie Kunz, health planner for the health department, said a few other schools have “clusters” of cases but are not outbreaks. She said it’s not many since most students are learning virtually.

The health department has released a survey asking community members if they would take a COVID-19 vaccine. She said the survey would be open until Monday and they received over 10,000 responses. Kunz said she plans to present the data to the county commissioners.

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