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Positive COVID-19 cases among Harford elementary school students have slight increase compared to fall

The number of Harford County Public Schools students testing positive for COVID-19 ticked up slightly last week, the second full week that children in elementary school have attended in-person learning at their schools.

Eleven elementary students had tested positive for the disease as of Friday, March 12, a slight increase from six positive cases as of the week ending March 5.

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The number of staffers with positive cases has remained the same, with four such cases, according to the dashboard on the Harford County Public Schools website.

The latest information on COVID-19 cases comes as middle and high school students began their in-person classes on a one-day-a-week hybrid basis this week. Elementary schoolers started their in-person learning, in a two-day-a-week hybrid, March 1. School system officials plan to expand to four days a week for elementary March 29 and four days a week for secondary April 7.

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Once a positive case is confirmed, school officials work to find people who have been close contacts of that person and have them either be isolated or quarantined. Forty-one staffers and 112 students have been placed in isolation or quarantine as of March 12, according to the dashboard.

School nurses can conduct a rapid antigen test if a student or staffer shows symptoms of COVID-19, such as a fever of 100 degrees or higher, a cough, difficulty breathing, a loss of senses of smell or taste and fatigue. Medical staff also conduct a PCR nasal swab test if the antigen test is negative.

Anyone who is sick with COVID-19 is placed in isolation, according to Mary Nasuta, supervisor of health services, who explained the difference between isolation and quarantine in a video available on the HCPS YouTube page. Nasuta and Risk Manager Katie Ridgway answer a number of questions in the video to support families making the transition from virtual to in-person learning.

People placed in quarantine, versus isolation, are those who have been exposed to a person who is sick and could become sick themselves two to 14 days after exposure, according to Nasuta.

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“In addition to being separated from others, they’re monitoring their symptoms to see if they become sick,” she said.

People who are sick are placed in isolation for at least 10 days, but they can be released if they are feeling better, their symptoms improve and they have not had a fever for 24 hours without using “fever-reducing medicine,” Nasuta said.

Schools were open for in-person learning for several weeks in late October and early November, starting with kindergarten through second grade in school one day a week and then adding third- through fifth-graders once a week, with plans to reopen for middle and high schoolers.

Those plans were put on hold, and nearly all students — except those without internet service at home — returned to virtual learning after Nov. 13 as the number of COVID-19 cases spiked in the community. Health officials said at the time that they were seeing few instances of COVID-19 transmission between children while in school, but significant spread was happening in the wider community — the seven-day average of new cases stood at 21.42 per 100,000 residents with a positivity rate of 6.94% for Harford County at the time.

Two students and six school staffers had tested positive, with than 250 students and 166 staffers in isolation or quarantine, as of the week ending Nov. 6, 2020. Nine students were positive as of Nov. 12 — nearly four weeks after students started in-person learning — compared to 11 students this month after the second week of in-person learning, according to Lader.

Harford County has 13,075 total cases and 246 confirmed deaths as of Tuesday. The positivity rate stood at 5.73% and the new case rate was 17 per 100,000 as of Monday, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.

About half of K-12 teachers vaccinated

HCPS staffers continue to get vaccinated against the disease, with 47% of more than 4,600 kindergarten through 12th-grade educators — who have registered with the Harford County Health Department — receiving at least one shot.

“An additional 21% of these 4,679 K-12 [educators] hold appointments ... to be vaccinated between today through end of next week” through the health department, agency spokesperson Molly Mraz said in an email Tuesday. There are more than 5,100 total HCPS staffers, according to Maryland State Department of Education data.

School system and health officials have “worked tirelessly” to help staffers get vaccinated, according to HCPS spokesperson Jillian Lader.

“While we advocate staff take the vaccine, it is a personal choice,” Lader stated in an email. “Whether a staff member chooses to receive the vaccine has not affected our plans to return to in-person instruction.”

The health department had been offering clinics for school staff earlier this year, but they were canceled in the face of very limited supplies of vaccine doses. The school system had reached out to other providers such as University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health or CVS pharmacy, but “unfortunately, everyone was facing the same vaccine shortage,” according to Lader.

“We were extremely happy when the [health department] was able to begin a gradual release of vaccine appointments to secondary school staff,” she stated.

President Joe Biden recently directed states to make all adults 18 and older eligible to get a COVID vaccine as of May 1. Maryland is currently vaccinating people in priority groups 1A through 1C, such as healthcare workers, first responders, long-term care residents and staff, court and government staffers, people with serious health conditions such as cancer, diabetes and sickle cell disease, adults 65 and older and educators.

The vaccine is not currently available for anyone younger than 16, but companies that made vaccines for adults, such as Pfizer and Moderna, are testing them for children.

Vaccine appointments

The state also is operating a website that people can use to find a vaccine appointment, either through a mass-vaccination site or local providers such as the county health department, Upper Chesapeake Health, MedStar’s clinic in Bel Air or pharmacies at CVS, Walgreens, or Giant Food in Forest Hill.

The health department operates vaccine clinics on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and educators, who are part of the 1B priority group, “are welcome to register with us,” Mraz stated.

Many educators have scheduled vaccine appointments through the health department, although some also scheduled appointments with other providers, out of concern that their health department appointments could be canceled again, according to Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the Harford County Education Association, the local teachers’ union.

Those who have been vaccinated locally are “very appreciative,” according to Crawford-Smick, who noted in an email that “finding an appointment on your own was extremely stressful [for educators], on top of everything else on their plate right now.”

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“Although vaccines are not a requirement for returning, we are very grateful that most of the people who wanted to be vaccinated have had the opportunity,” she stated. “The goal is to keep schools open, and vaccinating staff is an important step towards that goal.”

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