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Three Westminster High School staff members test positive for COVID-19

Three staff members at Westminster High School tested positive for COVID-19 last week and the school system is working with the Carroll County Health Department on a response that includes contact tracing, quarantining and deep cleaning.

“One staff member who hadn’t been in the building for seven to nine days tested positive,” Principal John Baugher said Monday, noting that the health department as well as the school system’s human resources and central office were all notified Wednesday, after the positive test, and contact tracing commenced. “Two staff members who got rapid tests Thursday [tested positive] and called us immediately.”

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Two other staff members who came into close contact but have not tested positive are in quarantine, Baugher said.

No students were exposed. Carroll County Public Schools began the fall semester with online learning on Sept. 8. Many staff members were back in buildings the previous week to get ready for the school year, however, as teachers have been “strongly encouraged” by CCPS to work from their classrooms.

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At Westminster, Baugher said they are able to track where staff members go in the building and so, in addition to the normal, daily cleaning procedures, a deep cleaning was done to all areas where those staff members who tested positive had been.

County Health Officer Ed Singer said any positive tests are electronically relayed to the Carroll County Health Department and that he had been in touch with CCPS personnel, including Superintendent Steve Lockard, last week and communication continued over the weekend.

Singer said the mandatory deep cleanings following a positive test are done out of an “abundance of caution” and that he believe the chance of transmission from surfaces is “minimal.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 spreads “from person to person, mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.”

Baugher said that about 10 students who are enrolled in the BEST (Behavorial Education Support Team) program at Westminster High were in the school Monday. That’s part of the CCPS initiative that began bringing small groups, including career and technology and special education students, back into buildings on Monday.

While Westminster was down a few teachers because of the quarantines, Baugher said he didn’t think the positive tests would deter staff members from coming into the school.

“Staff is willing to come back, they just want to be reassured, to make sure that everybody’s safe,” he said. “I think our policies and procedures are allowing us to do that.”

Word of the positive tests began to spread on social media late last week and over the weekend, including some assertions of a cover-up.

“Everybody is going to want to allege they were trying to hide something,” Singer said, noting that this is no different than in several cases where businesses temporarily closed for deep cleaning and “everybody freaks out.”

Singer called keeping the public safe while keeping private medical information confidential “a tough balancing act.”

Baugher said the school, and the entire school system, tries to be transparent, but that there are privacy laws that prevent disseminating all the information some would like.

“We have to look at the rights of all folks ... we’re still obligated to follow all those rules,” he said. “You can believe in conspiracy theories all you want. The majority of our staff lives here, has raised kids here, are part of this community. None of us wants anyone harmed, and we want to get back to normal.”

Going forward

The situation at Westminster High does serve as a reminder of the challenges related to getting “back to normal.”

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The Board of Education has set Oct. 19 as a target date for students returning to school buildings in a hybrid format. The general plan is for each student to attend school twice a week, with schools allowing half the enrollment to attend on two days, the other half on two other days.

What happens when there are positive tests? Some school systems throughout the country, such as the South Western district in Pennsylvania, not far from Carroll, started the year with in-person learning only to go virtual because of positive COVID-19 tests.

“It becomes an operational question," Singer said.

For example, he said, if 10 teachers are out of a school with the virus at the same time, does it make sense to open? If 60 students are in quarantine, is it practical to hold classes? Those are the types of questions Lockard and the school board are in the process of setting policy to deal with prior to schools reopening.

“Even one case is going to cause a small ripple,” Baugher said. "Going forward, it could be a struggle at times ... as we move to a more hybrid model. Even when we are split at Westminster High School ... we will have 720, 730 kids per day in those two hybrids, and our entire staff would be here.

"There’s going to be times we may struggle to get teachers. Even if they’re not positive, they may end up being quarantined by the health department and unable to come to work for a week or two weeks.”

Singer said his office works with all employers of those testing positive on contact tracing, but that it is particularly important to work closely with the school system. Once students are back in school and one tests positive, health officials will need to know who that student was sitting behind on the bus or next to in class, for example.

“Who knows better than a teacher who a third-grader has come in contact with?” said Singer, who reiterated that he thinks having kids return to school is important.

And he knows there are issues schools will face that other workplaces will not.

“It’s not going to be perfect. They’re not always going to be 6 feet apart,” Singer said. “I don’t know how you keep a couple of kindergartners from hugging each other."

While in-person learning in the time of the coronavirus will be challenging, both Singer and Baugher said the collaboration that exists in Carroll County will help.

“The health department works very well with the school system and the school system works very well with other agencies,” Baugher said. “Everyone works for the betterment of the community as a whole.”

Singer said he isn’t sure the heads of other county health departments have cellphone numbers for the local hospital president or superintendent of schools.

“Even if it’s 2 in the morning, I can call,” he said, “and they will answer the phone.”

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