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Harford County schools returning to mostly virtual as COVID-19 cases reach new highs

Harford County Public Schools will be sending most students and teachers home at the end of this week to resume virtual learning after new local coronavirus cases in Harford County have spiked to the their highest levels since the pandemic began here.

“We’re going to shut down a majority of our in-person learning experiences for a short period of time while the metrics are above the cutoffs established by the state,” Superintendent Sean Bulson said Monday in an interview with The Aegis. “We’ve now had five days of the positivity rate exceeding 5%, and our new case rate has been on a very steep trajectory.”

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The Maryland Department of Health reported Harford County had a seven-day average of 19.57 cases per 100,000 people and a COVID-19 positivity rate of 6.34% Monday, when Bulson made his decision. By Tuesday, those numbers had risen again to 21.42 case per 100,000 and 6.94% positivity.

Both metrics are above the baselines outlined in the HCPS Continuity of Learning plan, which called for more restrictive steps if the positivity rate exceeded 5% or the new case rate rose above 15 per 100,000. Those same metrics apply in state guidelines for reopening schools, in which “limited or no in-person programs” are recommended, according to Bulson.

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“It’s been on a pretty steep trajectory; we don’t know when it will be turning around,” he said of the rate of new cases during a Board of Education meeting Monday evening.

School system leaders, as well as county health officials, noted that transmission of COVID-19 within schools, such as from one child to another, has been low. It is more the transmission of cases in the wider community that is affecting HCPS' ability to keep schools open.

“This is part of a much larger spike across the country,” school board member David Bauer said.

Marcy Austin, Harford County’s acting health officer, said the number of cases in children age 9 and younger has increased by 38% over the past two weeks, and there has been an 18% increase in the 10 to 19 age range over the same period.

“I’m in full agreement with the plan to keep children safe,” she said during the board meeting.

Lynda Boegner, also of the health department, said there have not been many cases of children transmitting COVID-19 to each other while in school. She urged county residents to take measures to help limit the spread of the illness.

“We’re hoping people can get back on track, really focus on the social distancing,” Boegner said. “Wear your mask, practice all those mitigation strategies to hopefully get us back on track and get these schools open.”

Harford schools will remain open under a one-day-a-week hybrid model through the end of this week, Bulson said.

“This will start effective Friday, that’s usually our asynchronous day, we’re going to have three more days to prepare to shut things down and make sure students and teachers have the things that they need for virtual learning experiences,” he said.

Last Wednesday, schools began bringing back third- through fifth-graders for a once-a-week hybrid model. Kindergarten through second-grade students returned under the once-a-week model Oct. 19, and middle and high school students had been scheduled to return starting next Monday.

Some students began the school year five days a week in Learning Support Centers set up around the county — special education and high school career and technology education programs had welcomed students back, too.

All of those students will now be returning home for virtual school — with one exception, Bulson said.

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“We are working on creating spaces for people who don’t have access to internet,” he said.

The superintendent noted a concentration of residents without internet in the North Harford area, and said the school system is working on creating some sort of “connectivity spaces” for them to learn in-person.

“But it’s really just for people without internet,” he said. “We do have some small numbers of people in other parts of the county without internet; we think we can address a lot of their needs with hot spots.”

More information about “connectivity hubs” will be released later this week, Bulson said during the board meeting.

“It’s hard to put an amount of time on it," Bulson said Monday afternoon, regarding when students can go back for in-person learning. “It really has to do with those community transmission rates.”

He said during the board meeting that the rate of positive tests would need to be below 5% and the rate of new cases below 15 per 100,000 people for at least one week before HCPS officials could begin preparing to bring students back to the classroom, and then another week would need to elapse before students could return. That means a two-week period before students go back to school, “once the data turns around,” Bulson said.

When students do return, Bulson said there wouldn’t be an incremental roll-out like had been done to start the school year, rather, “we would return where we left off with those same groups" already participating in the one-day hybrid.

School system officials will work with a planning group to then determine how soon middle and high school students can come back after the elementary students return, Bulson said.

The superintendent noted, during the school board meeting, that there is a very low rate of transmission of COVID-19 among children ranging in age from infants to 9 years old, but the rate is much higher for youths ages 10 to 19.

The greater challenge facing schools is the higher number of adult staffers who have tested positive for the disease or must be isolated or quarantined when people close to them test positive.

Two students and six staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Friday, Nov. 6. More than 250 students are in isolation or quarantine, along with 166 staffers, according to the COVID-19 dashboard on the HCPS website.

Many of the positive cases among staffers have been traced to their workplaces, but other staffers became infected outside of work, meaning they cannot come to work, according to the superintendent.

“Keeping the buildings staffed has been challenging, particularly as the rates have been increasing,” Bulson said.

Meal kits will continue to be provided on Friday from noon to 1 p.m., according to an announcement from the school system sent to parents and staff. Sports and conditioning schedules have been put on hold.

The school system will continue to offer tech support for families.

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School system leaders, as well as health services leaders and school nurses, have been in regular contact with the Harford County Health Department during the school year and have consulted with county health officials regarding decisions on whether students should be in school or not.

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Mary Nasuta, supervisor of health services, praised school nurses for their work in monitoring student and staff health, keeping track of data and making “so many hard choices” about whether a person should be placed in isolation or quarantine.

Board members Bauer and Dr. Roy Phillips, a physician, urged local residents to take proper precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19 and help schools reopen.

“I’m tired of this pandemic and quarantine but unfortunately, now is the time to get back to being serious for those things that people have gotten lax on,” said Bauer, who stressed that “how long we have to stay entirely virtual depends on what we see in the community at-large.”

Phillips said decisions on keeping schools open or closed are not made in a vacuum, but are based on guidance from the state, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the county health department.

“We all feel horrible that we have to take this approach, but the numbers are just staggering,” he said of local cases.

Phillips recalled being out over the weekend and passing athletic fields where children were playing and keeping their distance from each other, but he saw “less than half” of adults on the sidelines wearing masks. He urged people to “be smart, and let’s see if we can turn this around quickly.”

“I know Dr. Bulson and the staff are committed to turning this around quickly — as far as getting kids back if the numbers show a quick turnaround — and we’re all hoping for that,” Phillips said.

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