Schools were open to elementary students earlier this year, in late October and early November, on a hybrid basis, but HCPS officials went back to all-virtual learning in mid-November as the number of cases in the community increased. COVID-19 was showing up in students and school staff members, too, creating significant disruptions as multiple people had to be isolated or quarantined.
There has been less disruption from the disease this time around, however, as school nurses can conduct rapid antigen tests on site for students or staffers who show COVID-like symptoms.
“When we see a positive rapid test, we know we need to isolate that person and quarantine their close contacts,” Mary Nasuta, supervisor of health services, told school board members.
Even if the rapid test turns out negative, staff will conduct a nasal swab PCR test with the patient in their vehicle to confirm whether the person has COVID-19 or not. The sample is sent to a lab, and the results come back within 24 to 48 hours, according to Nasuta.
If the PCR test comes back positive, then officials will work to find those who have been close contacts of the patient so they can quarantine, according to the school system’s continuity of learning plan.
A person considered a close contact is anyone who has been within 6 feet of a COVID-positive person for at least 15 minutes during a 24-hour period, according to Nasuta, who cited the definition provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Each positive case is handled individually, and staff conduct an investigation to determine who has been in close contact with the patient, as well as the type of activities they were doing and whether disease mitigation policies were being followed.
“It is a pretty painstaking process to go through, but worth it because it decreases the disruption for people who don’t need to be quarantined,” Nasuta said.
Based on initial data from the past week, fewer people have had to quarantine compared to the fall. Those who have negative results on the rapid and PCR tests do not have to quarantine, according to Nasuta.
“That’s really been helpful in decreasing the disruption that we experienced in the fall,” she said of the testing.
The school system has put multiple safety measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including requiring everyone to wear masks in school buildings, maintaining 6 feet of social distancing whenever possible, frequent hand washing and sanitizing of surfaces, as well as plexiglass shields on teacher and students desks.
Superintendent Sean Bulson said he was “very impressed with the set up” of plexiglass shields when he visited elementary schools last week, noting that they are used when students have to get close together in a classroom, but they can be removed if students are able to spread out.
“I think it created a good sense of that barrier for students, to add that extra layer [of safety],” he said. “I think the schools have done a really good job organizing that, thinking through that, and I think it really does make a difference.”
The number of cases in Harford County continues to increase, even as vaccines are available. As of Monday, 17% of county residents have received at least one dose of the two-shot COVID-19 vaccine, County Executive Barry Glassman announced.
About 60% of the school system’s roughly 5,000 staff members have had at least one vaccine shot, Bulson told board members.
Bulson noted that the rate of new COVID-19 cases has been “stubbornly stuck” at an average of 10 to 12 cases per 100,000 residents — the rate stood at 13.53 cases, higher than the statewide average of 12.99, and the positivity rate was 4.65%, compared to a statewide rate of 3.4%, according to the state data reported Tuesday.
“We really need to keep pushing to keep that transmission down,” Bulson said. “As of right now, it is our intent to stay on the trajectory we are on, to keep to the opening plan we have, but we do rely on everybody to continue to be safe.”
Bulson also encouraged those who are eligible to get a vaccine to do so, describing it as “one of the measures that helps us ensure we can, not only get back to school more completely, but that we can stay there.”
Elementary students went back for two days a week starting March 1, and HCPS officials plan to bring them back four days a week March 29. Secondary students are scheduled to go back one day a week Monday, March 15, and then four days a week April 7, depending on conditions related to the pandemic.
About 35% of families plan to have their children continue learning virtually this year, according to Bulson. Educators are currently teaching students in the classroom and students learning from home at the same time, which the superintendent acknowledged is “not ideal.”
Officials currently plan to have the majority of students back in school five days a week in as traditional a setting as possible when the new school year begins in the fall. Safety measures such as masking and social distancing could still be in place, as vaccines for children and teenagers are not currently on the market, Bulson noted.
“We hope to be able to move back to something a little more traditional, but we’re going to be at the mercy of this virus a bit longer,” he said.
The school system also is working to create a blended virtual program, headquartered at the Alternative Education Program at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen, for students who want to remain virtual next year. Bulson said parents will be surveyed to find out whether they want their children to be in-person or virtual, although it has not yet been determined when that will happen.
“We’re trying to find just that right time to ask people,” he said.
Herold stressed to Bulson the need for “really clear communication” with parents about making the decision to be virtual or in-person.