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Carroll County health officer to Board of Education: No ‘magic number’ for reopening schools

Carroll County’s top health official said there is no “magic number” that will tell the Board of Education when the time is right to send students back into schools.

Health Officer Ed Singer spoke via video conference Wednesday night, when about an hour of the six-hour school board meeting was spent discussing how the county is doing in terms of COVID-19 and how the numbers are trending as Carroll County Public Schools moves closer to its tentative Oct. 19 date for returning to school buildings in a hybrid fashion.

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“It’s always really nice if somebody can tell you, if it’s 'X' number than we should go ahead and do it. There is no 'X' number for this,” Singer told the board. "There’s a whole bunch of different factors to consider ... and then ultimately you’ve got a hard decision to make.

“I wish I could give you a magic number and say this is the right time and this is going to be perfect and we know we’re not going to have any problems. [But] there’s a possibility, regardless of what our numbers are showing and the way things are trending, we could open back up and have issues.”

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Singer has previously advised the board that weekly community cases of COVID-19, the number of intensive care unit beds in use at Carroll Hospital, and the weekly number of fatalities attributable to the coronavirus are the measures he considers to be most important in terms of reopening schools. He displayed slides during the meeting that showed ICU bed numbers and fatalities to be well within acceptable levels over the past month.

Community cases of COVID-19, however, rose significantly last week after being, essentially, in line with Singer’s recommendation that Carroll should have 3 or fewer community cases per day per 100,000 residents. With nearly 170,000 people living in the county, that translates to five community cases per day or 35 per week. Carroll saw 88 cases last week after 76 combined in the previous two weeks.

Singer also discussed with board members Gov. Larry Hogan’s recommended number of cases for school systems to return to in-person learning. The governor’s guidelines allow for a return when counties are seeing five to 15 total cases — including those from congregate living facilities, such as nursing homes — per 100,000 people per week.

That would translate to roughly 60 to 180 total cases per week for Carroll, which has seen only 14 cases from county facilities since Aug. 1, but 344 community cases over the same span. Singer said he believes the community cases measure to be more relevant to school reopening because the students are far less likely to be exposed to anyone in congregate living facilities than to members of the wider community.

However, Singer recommended that the board look at numerous metrics the Carroll County Health Department is providing when making its decision about reopening schools.

“I think you need to look at these benchmarks and take a look at where the trends are going. I don’t think you should have a hard number in making your decision,” he said. “I think you need to take a look at all these things as a group and deliberate among yourselves and get my input and make a decision as to whether or not you think you can safely operate schools and they’re going to be able to continue to operate.”

Singer acknowledged that if the BOE meeting had been held last week, when Carroll was coming off of two consecutive weeks of lower numbers of community cases, he would’ve felt differently than he does this week, coming off the county’s highest week for new cases in more than a month.

But, again, he said it’s the totality of the data that should factor into the board’s decision rather than having one number trigger a reopening.

“Hospitalizations right now are in a really good spot, the number of deaths are in a really good spot. If we stay there with those and we’re just back and forth where one of these things might be a little bit above a metric we set, then you have to think about it,” he said. “It’s not a magic number. Even the number the state gives us is not a magic number. This is all everybody’s best estimate based on a disease we have very limited knowledge of because it’s been around less than a year.”

Singer also said it’s up to everyone in the community to ensure kids are able to go back to school in-person, by following safety procedures like social distancing and hand washing to mitigate the spread of the virus, thus keeping the number of community cases low.

“I"m hoping that people will start keeping in mind that we’re still in this pandemic and if we want to keep things open and get schools open and we want to be able to get kids back in the classroom, that it’s a team effort,” Singer told the board.

The entire Sept. 9 Board of Education meeting can be viewed on YouTube.

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