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Harford schools await new CDC guidance on COVID-safe operations as they prepare for summer activities, in-person return in fall

Harford County Public Schools officials are eagerly awaiting new COVID-19 related guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as they prepare for summer learning activities, as well as the start of the 2021-22 school year.

“That will inform a lot of our decision making, and give us a real good look about what’s ahead,” Katie Ridgway, HCPS risk manager, said during the Board of Education’s most recent meeting.

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A message has been posted on the CDC’s website — where the most recent guidance for school operations was released May 15 — encouraging school systems across the country to keep current COVID-19 protocols in place until all districts have ended their school years, according to Ridgway.

Agency officials want to ensure students 12 to 15 years old, who became eligible to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine May 12, have enough time to be considered fully vaccinated, which happens two weeks after the second and final shot. The CDC also wants to give school system officials time to adjust their policies and procedures, according to the agency website.

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Harford County’s 2020-21 school year ended June 14; the next school year begins Wednesday, Sept. 8. In between, the school system will host summer sessions for elementary, middle and high school students.

Once the CDC releases its updated guidance, the Maryland State Department of Education will follow with its own guidance to local school systems, according to Ridgway.

“We’re ready with lots of plans, and we already know a few things,” she said, noting that Gov. Larry Hogan lifted the mask mandate for schools recently, and “starting July 1, we will be mask optional for school-sponsored activities.”

Hogan plans to lift Maryland’s COVID-19 state of emergency, which has been in place since March of 2020, effective July 1.

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Policies that will remain in effect for HCPS include the continuation of diagnostic testing for COVID, as well as isolation and quarantine protocols for students or staff who test positive for the disease and their close contacts. Officials also plan to keep encouraging people to stay home when they are sick and will hold campaigns promoting that practice, especially during times when the risk of disease transmission is greater, such as flu season.

“Although we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we do still have COVID in our community, and so our nurses will be ready to respond if that happens,” Ridgway said.

Harford County’s positivity rate stood at 0.48%, and the rate of new cases was 0.95 per 100,000 residents as of Monday, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard. Both rates have plummeted from peaks in April and January as vaccines are widely available at private pharmacies and through the Harford County Health Department.

An operational status chart will be posted on the HCPS website to show changes in policies and procedures, according to Ridgway.

“Keep watching, because there will be more [information] as the CDC and MSDE release their guidance,” she said.

Several board members pressed HCPS officials on when facilities can open for community sports and other activities, as they have heard from local residents eager to have the school buildings open to the community.

Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, said officials are waiting for new guidance from the CDC, “just so that we know what the expectations are for keeping up with COVID, cleaning and sanitation.”

“From there, we’ll make decisions on how we’re going to proceed through the summer,” he added.

Board member Carol Mueller urged Brown and his colleagues to “make these decisions sooner rather than later,” as there is “a strong movement that wants the schools open for indoor facilities for the sports.”

Brown stressed that “we want the same,” but further guidance from health officials is needed before making changes in operating status.

“We’re very anxiously waiting for updates and directions, so that we can move forward with our plans to return to normal,” he said.

School’s in for summer

Summer sessions for elementary schoolers run from July 19 to Aug. 5, and classes will be at five regional sites, including Abingdon, Bel Air, Deerfield, Meadowvale and North Harford elementary schools, according to the HCPS website.

More than 650 students have been registered for summer programs, according to Renee Villareal, executive director of elementary instruction and performance. Those students will experience extensions of the same math and reading curriculum they had during the school year, plus “camp-like activities” and “interventions” for students in need of aid will be woven through the summer school day.

“This is going to be really fun and very motivational for them,” Villareal said.

Middle and high school summer programs begin July 6, according to Michael O’Brien, executive director of secondary instruction and performance. Devices were being distributed this week at regional summer school sites to students who are registered for virtual programs, and students doing in-person programs will get their devices on the first day of class.

Deborah Basler, supervisor of physical education for high schools, recently briefed coaches and principals about summer conditioning for fall sports, according to O’Brien.

“We’re excited to get our fall athletes conditioned and ready for fall sports,” he said.

School board Vice President Rachel Gauthier reiterated the school system’s plans to return to in-person classes five days a week next year.

“Five days a week as it was before, masks optional because there are some families who will choose to have their children wear them, and that’s OK,” said Gauthier, who added that “we are planning on a full fall sports season.”

Swan Creek School

Students who still want a virtual option next year can take classes through Swan Creek School, which will be housed at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen.

More than 230 elementary students will be attending Swan Creek next year, along with 211 middle schoolers and 223 high school students, according to O’Brien and Villareal.

The high school bell schedule for the first and second class periods has been aligned with the bell schedules for other high schools throughout the county. Some of those schools have donated time so Swan Creek students can participate in classes at other high schools, such as technology education at Patterson Mill and Havre de Grace, pre-calculus at Aberdeen, algebra at Fallston and a guitar lab at Harford Technical High School, according to O’Brien.

Swan Creek also will offer some advanced courses such as AP language, literature and U.S. history, and students at “comprehensive high schools,” such as C. Milton Wright in Bel Air, will be able to take part those courses virtually through Swan Creek, if they cannot get into a section at their home schools, O’Brien noted.

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“We’ve designed the school around what the kids have signed up for and the courses that they want,” he said.

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O’Brien, in response to board member questions about Swan Creek students participating in sports and activities such as dances, encouraged families to contact Principal Robert DeLeva with suggestions. He noted that students will not be able to participate in interscholastic sports, but administrators are looking into intramural sports. Students also can attend events such as homecoming dances at their neighborhood schools as guests.

Swan Creek staff are looking into virtual and in-person school activities, “based on how the students express what they want to do,” O’Brien said.

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