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Amid staff shortages, schools considering incentives to get staff vaccinated

Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson underscored the county’s ongoing struggle to readjust to in-person instruction amidst the latest COVID-19 surge Monday night at the first Board of Education meeting of the calendar year.

The meeting, which was livestreamed, was held at the A.A. Roberty Building. Some school board members participated online, while Bulson and board President Rachel Gauthier both appeared in person.

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Bulson said more temporary school closures are possible as they continue daily to track staff attendance. The only school closed for in-person instruction currently is Aberdeen Middle School, which is on track to reopen to students on Jan. 18, according to a schools spokesperson. Bulson noted there were other schools they were “keeping an eye on.”

“Our goal is to keep our students in school every day, if possible,” Bulson said.

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One of the primary concerns right now is the lack of substitute teachers, Bulson said. Staff from the central office have been deployed to classrooms at schools needing the most help, “because right now that still is the first priority.”

On Monday, there were 845 students in isolation with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections and 541 in quarantine for having been exposed to someone with the disease. Also, 165 staff members are in isolation and 40 in quarantine, according to Mary Nasuta, supervisor of health services for Harford public schools.

“I am looking forward to the evening when I’m able to report improving metrics,” Nasuta said. “However, sadly, that is not tonight.”

Nursing staff continues to test students who become symptomatic for COVID-19 during the school day. Last week, 53 out of 138 rapid tests were positive (38.4 percent), as well 12 out of 15 PCR tests (80 percent), according to Nasuta.

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Nasuta also said there are currently 11 schoolwide outbreaks and four classroom outbreaks across the school system. The Maryland Department of Health reported a total of 18 county public school outbreaks as of Jan. 5.

The oard also voted to meet with the school system’s bargaining units to discuss potential financial incentives for school employees vaccinated against COVID-19. Bulson, who suggested the possibility of incentives, said they could be for up to $500 and open to all employees who worked in the system this school year. The incentive would be considered taxable income.

The superintendent also said that based on data from the county health department, 59 percent of school staff members who reside in Harford County are fully vaccinated, not taking boosters into account.

“We still have a ways to go with regard to vaccine compliance among our employees,” Bulson said.

While considering incentives for school employees to get vaccinated, Bulson and Gauthier said the school board is not interested in a vaccine mandate and that the decision is still voluntary.

“If you are so inclined to go get it or needed something to push you over the edge, maybe this will do it,” Gauthier said of the incentives.

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