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Howard County school system requiring COVID vaccines or regular testing for all employees in the fall

Howard County Public School System Superintendent Michael Martirano announced Thursday that all school employees will be required to provide proof of full vaccination or undergo regular COVID-19 testing for the 2021-22 school year.

At the county Board of Education meeting Thursday afternoon, Martirano said Howard County Health Officer Dr. Maura Rossman and other school leaders expressed support for the decision, and he said implementation procedures and further guidance will be made available over the coming days.

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“I did not make this decision lightly,” Martirano said in a statement. “We know that vaccines and masking are our best tools in confronting this pandemic. As a community, it is our responsibility to keep students safe by taking these precautions, and I feel strongly that this is another important measure to help keep our schools open.”

Several colleges in the state, including the University of Maryland’s 12 schools, Morgan State University and Frostburg State University, are requiring students, faculty and staff on campuses this fall to be vaccinated.

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However, Howard County may be the first district in the state to require vaccination or regular testing for employees. Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing a majority of the teachers in the state, said she believes Howard is the first district in the state to require vaccination/testing.

The decision comes after the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, on Thursday endorsed vaccine requirements for school workers.

Howard County Education Association President Colleen Morris wrote in an email Thursday that a “safe and healthy return to in-person instruction” is the teachers union’s top priority.

The union “supports a layered approach to mitigate coronavirus transmission, potentially including universal masking, social distancing, attention to ventilation deficits, rigorous contact tracing and increased coronavirus testing. We continue to promote vaccines but for those individuals that are not vaccinated, we encourage frequent coronavirus testing,” Morris wrote.

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Howard’s vaccination rates remain the highest in the state, with 73.15% of the county’s total population having received at least one shot of a vaccine and 68.7% being fully vaccinated, according to data from the Maryland Department of Health on Thursday.

“I’m pleased that our school system is working with our educators to help ensure vaccinations or regular testing of employees. For our educators, some of whom are immunocompromised, and for so many of our children who are under 12 and are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, these measures are vital for their safety,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said in a statement Friday.

The school system’s decision to require proof of vaccination or testing is consistent with the Maryland State Department of Education’s direction that in-person instruction be provided every day throughout the 2021-22 school year, according to a news release.

Martirano said Thursday that Howard schools will be open in person five days a week beginning on the first day of school, Aug. 30.

The district will return to a normal instructional program, with the addition of universal masking regardless of vaccination status and other precautions such as increased ventilation, continued hand-washing, use of hand sanitizer and use of plexiglass where appropriate.

The school system does not intend to revise its in-person instructional model unless schools are directed to close by the state or the Howard County Health Department, the release states.

“I have not wavered in my conviction that fully in-person instruction is absolutely best for our students academically and for their social and emotional well-being,” Martirano said. “I want to make use of every tool available that will assist in mitigation to allow us to keep schools open. I don’t want to leave anything to chance in keeping children safe.”

Earlier Thursday, Ball said masks will be required for all employees and visitors in county government buildings, effective Saturday. As of that announcement, there has been no public plan for the county to enact the same vaccine or testing requirements as the school system.

“We’re looking at all options to keep our county employees safe. For many of our employees who cannot telework, are returning to the office or have face-to-face interactions with the public, vaccination is an important tool to protect our workforce from outbreaks,” Ball said Friday.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie and Baltimore Sun Media reporter Katie V. Jones contributed to this story.

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