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Harford County schools modify COVID protocols, eliminating sports spectators, field trips and assemblies

Harford County Public Schools reintroduced measures Tuesday to protect students and staff from the spread of the coronavirus.

The changes include no after-school activities that are not part of the testing/vaccination program; no field trips, assemblies or social events; no use of facilities by outside groups, no spectators at athletic events, and no in-person audiences at performances. Before- and after-school care will continue as scheduled.

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The policy also revises the district’s quarantine and isolation guidelines, following the latest updates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Dec. 27. Students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive should isolate at home for a minimum of five days, reduced from 10-14 days. This update applies to those who were in the process of completing a 10- or 14-day quarantine.

The announcement did not detail a timeline of when these changes might be re-evaluated.

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“We will continue to monitor guidance from state and local health officials, and communicate any changes with our community,” the announcement read.

The school system announced the updates to its operational status by phone, text and email sent out to parents around 6:30 p.m. Monday. The full announcement can be read here.

“Keeping our students in school and healthy remains our priority,” the announcement said.

The school system returned to in-person learning in March 2021, a year after COVID-19 was first detected in Maryland and a state of emergency closed schools throughout the state.

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Despite outbreaks at several Harford public schools, including one of the largest school outbreaks in the state at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School, the school system doubled down again on its decision to continue in-person learning, even at schools where outbreaks are occurring.

“We currently have no plans for a systemwide closure.”

The district, however, did allow the possibility of temporary virtual instruction by grade level or school “if directed by the Harford County Health Department, or if staffing shortages do not allow for safe school operations.”

The school system also clarified its school-site testing policy, stressing that parents should not send students to school with COVID-19 symptoms and expect them to get tested there. Only students who develop symptoms during the school day will be tested, and students who come to school sick will be sent home immediately. Other onsite testing is reserved for students in after-school programs that require testing.

The school system said it is finalizing plans for a weekly, voluntary testing clinic for staff and will be holding multiple pop-up clinics for students and staff in the next two weeks. Only students and staff who are asymptomatic and have not been in close contact with someone who is COVID-positive will be eligible for the voluntary pop-up clinics.

Harford County is experiencing rising numbers of COVID-19 cases that are at or near early pandemic levels, overwhelming the health care system and leaving residents scrambling to find testing. Gov. Larry Hogan declared a 30-day state of emergency Tuesday after Maryland hit a record high of COVID hospitalizations and said that the next four to six weeks will be the most challenging time of the pandemic.

Despite the statewide spike, the Republican governor remains firm in his commitment to keep schools open.

“I don’t think shutting down schools is the way to go,” Hogan said. “We’ve already seen the irreparable damage that was done [to students] when they were closed.”

Hogan encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated and for everyone in the state to continue masking, although he is not reinstituting a statewide mask mandate.

The district reinforced its masking policy and other safety measures that students and staff must take, such as hand-washing throughout the school day and social distancing. Families were encouraged to take similar masking and distancing precautions in all possible settings.

“We will continue our mitigation strategies to ensure schools remain a safe environment for students and staff,” the school systems’ statement said.

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