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Harford school officials emphasize student vaccinations as crucial part of return to full-time, in-person operations next year

With an estimated 70% to 80% of Harford County Public Schools employees receiving vaccines against COVID-19, as well as continued efforts to prevent the spread of the disease through wearing masks and other measures, there is a clear path toward returning to full-time, in-person school operations by next year.

“We’re hoping to see the vaccine open to a broader population,” HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson said during a Board of Education meeting Monday. “We think that will make a difference in our ability to have a more normal school year, beginning in the fall, but this is of course something we’ll have to keep a very close eye on.”

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Students’ willingness to get vaccinated will be crucial part of getting back to normal, especially as clinics for high schoolers 16 and older began this week, plus the Food and Drug Administration expanded its emergency use authorization for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to make youths age 12 to 15 years old eligible.

“The hard work is actually paying off, and I particularly want to encourage vaccination,” Mary Nasuta, supervisor of health services for the school system, told board members.

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She noted that the vaccine “is easier to get than it’s ever been before,” and it is available at multiple sites. Those sites include pharmacies, hospitals and medical offices, Harford County Health Department clinics, and a state-run mass vaccination site at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen.

Harford County had a COVID-19 positivity rate of 3.61% as of Tuesday — it stood at 2.92% when Nasuta gave her report to the school board Monday — and an average rate of new cases of 8 per 100,000 residents, which is below the statewide rate of 8.46 as of Tuesday, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.

“This now puts us in that low transmission, or ‘blue’ threshold, according to the CDC — we’re certainly happy to be there,” Nasuta said of the county’s low positivity and new case rates.

She also stressed how vaccines have helped the school system make significant reductions to the number of its people testing positive and going into isolation or quarantine.

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More than 430 HCPS students have tested positive for COVID-19 since in-person learning began March 1, with 249 more in isolation and 372 in quarantine. The staff numbers are significantly lower, with 62 testing positive over the same time period, along with 24 staffers in isolation and 25 in quarantine as of Wednesday, according to the dashboard on the school system website.

People can visit the health department’s webpage on COVID-19 vaccinations for more information on local vaccine sites, or they can register online for an appointment at the mass vaccination site. People also can visit the drive-through clinic at Ripken Stadium without an appointment, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, Nasuta noted.

Clinics to give the first of two Pfizer shots to older high school students began Monday, with 45 students receiving it at Aberdeen High School and 53 more at Bel Air High School. The vaccine is voluntary for students, who must submit consent forms filled out by their parent or guardian. The school system is partnering with University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health to provide the vaccine.

About 370 students gave consent for this week’s clinics, according to Nasuta, who also relayed the “wonderful news” about children 12 to 15 being eligible for the Pfizer vaccine. She said the clinics happening at present will “help us learn some best practices to use in the fall, when we’re anticipating vaccinating, hopefully, more students.”

Elementary, middle and high schools are currently open for in-person learning four days a week, and many students still are learning virtually from home. School system officials plan to have schools open five days a week next year, but they also are preparing a Virtual Program from Home, an eLearning program for students in kindergarten through 12th grade who want to keep learning virtually.

“It’s been one of the most important things that has allowed us to return to schools this spring,” Bulson said of the vaccine.

He emphasized that it is voluntary for students and staff, and HCPS officials currently “have no intention” of making the vaccine mandatory.

“Requiring that is not something we’re considering at this point,” Bulson said. “Should that change, people will know, very early on, but I don’t anticipate that changing, particularly while the vaccine remains under emergency [use] authorization.”

Vaccine benefits

The superintendent noted how officials are reviewing potential changes to policies and procedures for employees, and how they would be beneficial for staffers who have received the vaccine, versus those who have not.

“People will need to think about the benefits of getting that vaccine, or not, and the disadvantages,” he said.

Nasuta and Katie Ridgway, risk manager for HCPS, provided more details on how staff can benefit from being vaccinated, as well as the low metrics.

“This is really exciting, because we can already see a benefit for our adults,” said Ridgway, who also noted how officials “can start visualizing what our path ahead might look like” as vaccines are rolled out for adolescents.

One benefit is having to quarantine for 10 days if exposed to a person with COVID-19, rather than 14 days as previously approved by the county health department — provided the exposure happened after 12:01 a.m. on May 3, according to Nasuta.

Officials also are considering relaxing requirements for people to sign in and state if they have any COVID symptoms upon entering a school building each day, as well as allowing in-person meetings in small groups, with masking and social distancing, plus sharing a vehicle if both staffers have been vaccinated.

The school system also is emphasizing “personal responsibility” regarding vaccinations, through practices such as charging employees personal illness leave time if they have a COVID-related illness, according to Ridgway.

Officials will work with anybody who cannot get a vaccine because of medical reasons “on a case-by-case basis,” Ridgway said.

She and Nasuta also stressed the need for people to keep wearing masks, washing their hands, maintaining social distance and staying home when sick to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The school system is still conducting COVID testing, and partnered with the Maryland Department of Health to operate a “pop-up” testing clinic in April at Patterson Mill Middle/High School for members of the community who might have COVID-19 but are not experiencing any symptoms.

Nasuta said 187 residents participated in the Patterson Mill clinic, and another is being planned for May 24 at Magnolia Middle School.

The timing of when policies and procedures change, and how much school operations return to pre-pandemic levels, whether that happens this summer or in the fall, depends on how many students and their families agree to get vaccinated.

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“An 80% rate of vaccinated employees is really great; it’s really been able to help us move forward,” Ridgway said. “If we have that same type of response among our population of students, then that will be something that will significantly change what we can do in the future.”

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School board member Joyce Herold urged HCPS officials to ensure their communication about potential changes is “just as crystal clear as we can make it, across the board,” to avoid confusion among staffers and families.

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