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As Harford continues struggle with COVID, school leaders remain confident in Monday return to classrooms

The line outside the Bel Air library Thursday morning stretched around three sides of the building. People lined up before 5:30 a.m. for a 10 a.m. giveaway of free COVID-19 tests, according to Harford County Public Library CEO Mary Hastler.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and frustration for people because they can’t get these tests anywhere else,” Hastler said.

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Harford County has struggled amidst the recent surge, from Upper Chesapeake Medical Center becoming the first in the state to enact crisis protocols to having a school with one of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks. With limited testing kits, no mask mandates in place yet, and children going back to school Monday, there’s a sense of uncertainty for how the county will continue to deal with the ongoing effects of the omicron variant.

The Harford County health department gave HCPL 1,140 test kits to hand out at all branches as part of the 500,000 kits distributed this week by the state, according to a county health department spokesperson.

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A long line of people wait in rainy conditions Thursday morning along Hickory ave in Bel Air hoping to get a covid test kit.
A long line of people wait in rainy conditions Thursday morning along Hickory ave in Bel Air hoping to get a covid test kit. (Matt Button)

People stood in the rain with umbrellas and coffee in hand, and some even brought chairs to sit in. Kadesha Carroll, of Bel Air, was concerned how people would act while waiting for the tests, but said the atmosphere in line was “pretty calm.”

“It’s kind of like we’re just camping out,” Carroll said.

Travis Hruz, of Bel Air, was also looking for a test after an exposure to the virus. Last year with the different variant, he knew a “handful” of people who’d caught COVID-19.

“Now, we know a lot of people who have been exposed and they’re testing positive,” he said.

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But when the time came to open the doors, the supply of kits didn’t last long — 12 minutes. Staff had signs reading “WE ARE OUT OF COVID TESTS” in bright red letters at the ready. The first woman in line who was told they were out of kits immediately burst into laughter, joking that she’d figured something like this would happen.

Richard Tracey proudly dispays the COVID-19 test kit he secured after waiting in line at the Bel Air branch of the Harford County Public Library Thursday, December 30, 2021. 1,140 test kits were distributed throughout the library system Thursday.
Richard Tracey proudly dispays the COVID-19 test kit he secured after waiting in line at the Bel Air branch of the Harford County Public Library Thursday, December 30, 2021. 1,140 test kits were distributed throughout the library system Thursday. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

As the state’s COVID surge due to the omicron variant continues (the state reported more than 14,000 new cases and over 2,000 hospitalized Thursday), Gov. Larry Hogan announced that there will be two new COVID-19 testing sites, one of which is Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air. It will open Friday and be open every day, including during New Year’s weekend, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for walk-ins. Appointments will not be available.

The Harford County Health Department reported 225 new cases Thursday, with a positivity rate of 19.98 percent, on par with the state’s current rate of 20.63 percent. As of Wednesday, Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston remains among the largest school outbreaks in the state, currently at third with 116 recorded cases.

Despite outbreaks at several other schools within Harford County Public Schools prior to winter break, students and staff will be returning to in-person learning on Monday, and sports and other extracurricular activities will proceed as scheduled.

“We will continue to work with local and state health officials as well as [Maryland State Department of Education] to determine if any changes are necessary,” said Jillian Lader, district spokesperson. “If so, we will provide that information to families as soon as possible.”

Lader said the school district continues to follow the plan set forth at the beginning of the school year, which is posted on the district website. She did not address questions regarding the outbreaks, or any concerns regarding the spike in cases in the county and how the rising COVID-19 rates could impact students and staff returning to school.

In a letter emailed to parents on Dec. 23, the district said that their goal to keep schools open has been “tested and reaffirmed” by the outbreaks. The letter, which is signed by schools superintendent Sean Bulson and Rachel Gauthier, president of the Board of Education, restates what the district has said throughout the school year, which is that there are no plans for a system-wide shutdown.

The district will only consider closing a school after exhausting all other options, although it is unclear what instances would lead to that decision, but the school system will work with the Harford County Health Department if a school must be closed. The district said it continues to implement mitigation strategies and encouraging families to follow guidelines for minimizing the spread of COVID-19 such as hand washing and wearing face coverings, and to keep children home at the onset of symptoms.

Jansen Robinson, former school board president and current school board member for District A, agrees that schools should still open back up next week, and has praised Bulson’s leadership during the COVID-19 crisis.

“As far as the school system is concerned, we listen to the science.” Robinson said. “All our superintendent’s decisions have been made based on data, not what a particular community group or political group wants. It has been based on the data and the science.”

Nurse Christian Thomas puts a band-aid on the arm of young Phoenix Lee of Edgewood after administering his COVID-19 vaccine shot at the Harford County Health Department in Edgewood Thursday, December 30, 2021.
Nurse Christian Thomas puts a band-aid on the arm of young Phoenix Lee of Edgewood after administering his COVID-19 vaccine shot at the Harford County Health Department in Edgewood Thursday, December 30, 2021. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

After taking her grandson Phoenix to get vaccinated at a pediatric vaccine clinic at the county health department’s Woodbridge location on Thursday, Christina McGriff is comfortable sending him back to third grade at Magnolia Elementary School.

“I’m all for going back to school as long as it’s safe,” she said. After Phoenix received his shot, his 2-year-old brother Amir ran up to him asking when he could get his shot.

Neighboring counties have reinstated COVID restrictions such as mask mandates, but Harford County Executive Barry Glassman has remained seemingly unwilling to bring them back.

“I don’t rule anything out,” Glassman said earlier this week, “but right now, I’m not going to do anything further.”

County Council Andre Johnson has pushed for strengthening COVID restrictions, asking the council during a recent meeting to mandate masks during their meetings, only to have the proposal dismissed. However, he plans to wear a mask at the next council meeting even though he’s vaccinated and boosted.

Johnson also believes it’s “necessary for the public” for the County Council to take action as other counties have done. “I just don’t know if members of county government have an appetite to show leadership like that,” he said.

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