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Carroll County school board stays course on high school sports against recommendation of health officer

High school sports will continue in Carroll despite the county’s top-ranking health official suggesting to the school board that quarantining and contact tracing associated with indoor sports are causing a burden.

During a lengthy and wide-ranging Carroll County Board of Education meeting Wednesday night, Ed Singer, the county’s health officer, shared coronavirus case rates as usual but noted that high school sports has put a huge strain on health department and school system resources when it comes to contact tracing.

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He said 10 teams have been impacted by the virus and more than 100 students cannot go to school — or anywhere else — because they are in isolation or quarantine.

“I understand the need for education to be a priority but the extracurriculars are killing us a bit,” he said.

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The data dashboard that tracks COVID-19 cases and symptoms within the school system reported 113 people have the virus as of Wednesday — 43 staffers and 70 students. It also showed 130 people had COVID-19 symptoms — 56 staffers and 74 students.

However, high school athletes would appear on the dashboard only if they are participating in hybrid learning. Students who play sports and learn virtually full-time are not counted.

Board member Patricia Dorsey called the number of students affected concerning.

“I don’t know whether we can just drop it as a concern or whether we need to see if there’s something that we can do to sort of help,” she said.

Devanshi Mistry, student representative for the board, also noted it’s troubling from a student perspective and asked if mitigation among sports can be done or whether the season could be put on pause.

Winter sports include basketball and wrestling, indoor activities considered more risky in terms of virus transmission than outdoor sports. The winter season ends Feb. 13.

Singer said in-person learning is safer than sports because the school has mitigation measures in place, such as wearing masks and social distancing. However, those same mitigations are not in place during indoor sports.

“It’s troubling to me that we make all this effort to make sure that the kids aren’t going to transmit COVID to each other in the schools and when the bell rings you can go down and have close contact amongst a sports team,” he said.

Board member Tara Battaglia said they could strongly suggest student-athletes take COVID-19 tests weeks in advance before a game. And Superintendent Steve Lockard said there were conversations about pausing athletic teams.

Despite the concern, the games will go on. The board’s agenda for Wednesday’s meeting did not include an item to call for a vote on the sports season and no motion was made.

Last week’s motion to return to hybrid learning included a caveat that learning modes will not change unless directed by the state.

Singer noted vaccines for public school staff could start next week, along with private school staff and daycare employees. But it depends on if they receive enough vaccine doses.

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A few public school teachers, who are in group 1B, received vaccinations already, Singer said, due to first responders, who are in 1A, not signing up as quickly as expected.

Karl Streaker, director of student services, said special education teachers will be on the priority list of school staff to receive a vaccine. As well as bus drivers and attendants to transport special education students.

Katie Haman, Belinda Lawson and Kristal Burnett stood outside Carroll County's central office building before the start of the board of education meeting Jan. 13 holding signs.
Katie Haman, Belinda Lawson and Kristal Burnett stood outside Carroll County's central office building before the start of the board of education meeting Jan. 13 holding signs.

At the beginning of the meeting, 18 people spoke during citizen participation. Some thanked the board for their decision to return to hybrid. Others, including school staff, students and Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R- District 3, were critical of the decision.

School leaders in Howard and Harford counties were also critical of the decision and referred to the vote for hybrid as “political.”

Cindy McCabe, chief of schools, said 43% of all CCPS students showed up to hybrid learning so far.

Gregg Bricca, director of virtual learning, said for Thursday and Friday this week, central office will fill about 45 and 47 positions in the school buildings. He said there are about 75 staffers who are available to fill in but they are not always available due to absences or quarantining for COIVD-19.

“We only have five folks left to fill spaces should something come up in the next day or two,” he said.

Earlier this week, Jon O’Neal, chief operating officer, said 118 staff members are not in school due to quarantining and 16 of those are central office staff. Approximately 300 receive ADA accommodations that could keep them from the classrooms.

“We also were able to return 145 employees to full-time service by making the decision to allow employees the ability to have their own children report to both A and B cohorts, which certainly helped,” he said in an email this week.

Jason Anderson, chief academics, equity and accountability officer, noted the high rate of failing grades and explained that of the 2,900 students who received at least one F in the first quarter, 1,100 were students who signed up for virtual learning at the time. And 1,700 were those who elected to have hybrid learning.

Students first returned to hybrid Oct. 19 and the first quarter lasted between Sept. 8 and Nov. 11.

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