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School officials in other counties question Carroll County’s ‘political’ decision to return while COVID-19 metrics remain high

Faced with questions from parents about why their students remain learning virtually while Carroll County Public Schools restarted its hybrid learning model last week, officials in nearby Howard and Harford counties questioned the wisdom of Carroll’s school board’s decision-making.

During a joint meeting between the Howard County school board and the County Council this week, council member Christiana Mercer Rigby said she’s received emails from residents about Carroll’s return to a hybrid learning model.

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While the meeting was mostly about health metrics and the impacts of the vaccine rollout in Howard County, comparisons and questions about the stark contrast between Howard’s approach to education amid the coronavirus pandemic and Carroll’s were frequent.

“Based on my knowledge of how Carroll County has done it, I cannot imagine knowing the details about Carroll County and thinking that it would be a best practice,” Rigby said during the meeting.

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Despite having nearly identical COVID-19 numbers, the two neighboring school boards have made drastically different decisions in recent months. Last week, the Carroll County school board voted to restart the district’s hybrid model, while Howard’s school board voted last month to keep its students in virtual learning until at least mid-April.

Howard’s school board also has approved the specific levels that key health metrics must reach to allow students to return to in-person learning or a hybrid model, while the vote to return by Carroll’s school board was against the recommendation of Carroll County’s health officer and the district’s superintendent.

In Harford County, more than 100 people protested prior to a Board of Education meeting on Monday night demanding local schools reopen. Some people, both at the protest and in public comment calls during the board meeting, brought up how Carroll County’s school board recently voted to have students go back for in-person classes two days a week.

Superintendent Sean Bulson has remained steadfast that the school system must follow the state’s COVID-19 Guidance for Maryland Schools. The Board of Education there has not challenged the superintendent’s decision and has not voted on a potential return date.

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While the state’s guidance document has undergone minor revisions since it was issued Aug. 27, it maintains that schools must adhere to social distancing measures to keep 6 feet between students and staff who do not live in the same household. The document also recommends that schools remain closed or offer programs on a limited basis if the rate of positive cases is greater than 5% and the rate of new cases is higher than 15 per 100,000 people in a county.

Bulson reiterated a line from the guidance that “all Maryland public and nonpublic schools must follow the guidance contained in this document regarding COVID-19 mitigation actions.”

“I believe they’re going to be in a very challenging situation in that school district as a result of going against all of that guidance,” he said of Carroll County.

Howard Superintendent Michael Martirano said Monday that Carroll’s school board made some decisions “politically” that led to the return of hybrid learning.

“Some of the educational expertise that has been conveyed has been overridden, from what my knowledge is of it, [by] the Board of Education, who believes they should be taking more risks and getting young people back in school,” Martirano said. “That has created an incredible amount of concern for their teachers ... because the metrics are at a high level there and the school board has made the decision to move forward.”

All three counties have similar coronavirus metrics.

Carroll’s weekly positivity rate is 8.05% compared to 7.88% in Howard and 8.6% in Harford, while the seven-day rolling average new-case rate in Carroll is 47.07 per 100,000 residents versus 49.08 in Howard and 41.05 in Harford, according to the latest data available Wednesday from the Maryland Department of Health.

Harford’s superintendent said Monday he was expecting to hear about potential changes to the state’s guidance, at least in draft form, either this week or next week. Any potential changes to policies such as social distancing could affect bringing students back to school in other districts, including his own.

“All those things will be coming into play with regard to how we have to consider things like social distancing,” he said. “We expect mask wearing, and the hand washing and the cleaning and sanitizing, to be a regular part of our work for quite some time.”

Carroll’s hybrid model, which originally began in October, was stalled due to staffing issues and then ended in November due to an increase in COVID-19 cases in the county.

In Howard, meanwhile, the school board voted twice on whether to keep its students in a virtual learning model until at least April, and both times the vote to move to a hybrid model failed, 4-4. In the fall, some small groups of students were receiving in-person learning support in Howard County, but no students have been in classrooms since mid-November. The school system’s current plan is for small group programs to restart in February and a hybrid model to begin in mid-April, but both are dependent on the county’s health metrics drastically improving.

Harford County started the school year welcoming about 5% of its 38,000 students to Learning Support Centers, set up in school buildings for children who needed a safe place with reliable internet access to learn during the day, with teachers still offering instruction virtually from their homes.

Teachers were called back to the classroom in early October and a one-day per week hybrid learning plan for kindergarten through second-grade students began a week later, with older students set to gradually return throughout November. Third- through fifth-graders in Harford returned the same week cases and metrics spiked in mid-November, and by the end of the week, the county opted to for a return to all-virtual instruction.

Bulson said when the metrics allow, Harford will resume the hybrid model with the students who had already returned in the fall.

One Howard school board member, Antonia Barkley Watts, said Monday she disagrees with Carroll County’s method of having some teachers instructing virtually while a substitute teacher monitors the students in person.

“I feel as if you want to return your child in person, there’s an expectation that your child is also being taught by a teacher and is being taught by hopefully their teacher,” Watts said.

“I do not support that at all because that defeats the whole purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish and creates additional challenges,” Martirano added.

Baltimore Sun Media editor S. Wayne Carter Jr. contributed to this article.

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