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Howard County school system announces updates to in-person reopening plan as new academic year begins

Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano during a Board of Education meeting Thursday highlighted updates to the school system’s reopening plan to continue to work through the challenges experienced during the first week of school.

Here are a few updates to the plan to help maintain a healthy learning environment amid the coronavirus pandemic and in-person learning:

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Staff vaccines, testing

As of Thursday, 7,233 out of 8,490, or 85%, of full- and part-time Howard County Public School System employees have submitted proof of vaccination against COVID-19, while 105 staff members have chosen to undergo weekly testing and 1,152 staff members have not responded. Martirano said the school system plans to work with supervisors to make sure the employees that haven’t responded are contacted.

This number does not include substitutes or temporary staff. The school system’s Division of Administration will work with other school offices to reach out to these employees.

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Student enrollment

As of Thursday, a total of 57,619 students are enrolled in the county public school system, including 25,457 elementary, 13,429 middle school, 18,406 high school and 327 students who participate in community connections, infants and toddlers, and other programs.

Enrollment for the 2020-21 academic year was 57,293 as of Sept. 30, 2020, according to the school system’s website.

Quarantining procedures

Only unvaccinated students and adults who are identified as close contacts must quarantine. Vaccinated students and staff are not required to quarantine unless they receive a positive test or are displaying symptoms; however, they will be expected to monitor their symptoms closely for 14 days.

Every school has a designated isolation room, where students who become symptomatic at school are immediately placed until they can be picked up by a parent or other authorized individual.

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Students who need to quarantine will receive learning support while they are out of the school building, Martirano said.

Although COVID-related absences are considered excused absences, children who need to quarantine have several opportunities to participate in learning and receive support.

All elementary students are being provided a packet of grade-level instructional materials that are intended for use only in the event a student needs to quarantine. These tasks are designed to reinforce learning during quarantine and will not be used as an assessment or counted toward student grades.

Additionally, quarantining students at all levels will be able to participate in two weekly virtual check-ins with their teacher to ask questions or receive help with assignments.

Transportation

As of Thursday, the school system has 96 bus driver openings.

The shortage of drivers, the increased traffic associated with more car riders and the usual challenges of a new school year have resulted in delays for student transportation, particularly during the afternoon. Martirano also said the school system is using doubled routes on 95 routes to maximize usage of its current drivers.

Windows and hatches on all buses must be open, weather permitting, to increase air circulation. An exception is made where needed for special education buses.

School meals

Breakfast and lunch are being offered for free to all students, regardless of their eligibility status, through the end of the 2021-22 school year, through funding provided by U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers to support successful school reopenings.

Martirano said, because meals are being offered for free, more students are opting to eat the school meals than in years past. This has created an increased volume of students in cafeteria lines and delays in students receiving their meals. Martirano said staff from the Central Office are supporting cafeteria staff while the school system looks to hire more staff.

Cafeteria safety

Students do not need to wear masks when eating or drinking or while outdoors. Staff regularly remind students that masks are required in the cafeteria whenever they are not eating and at all other times indoors.

The school system also is installing plexiglass dividers for tables in elementary and middle school cafeterias, Martirano said, and eating outdoors is being encouraged when possible.

Martirano said the school system has also ordered tents to be installed at elementary schools to provide additional outdoor seating. He said some of the tents arrived this week and he expects the rest to arrive this month.

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