With COVID-19 cases surging in recent weeks at Howard County Public Schools, in-person extracurricular activities and sports will be canceled through January, officials announced Wednesday.
Before- and after-school care will continue, but athletic practices and games, theater rehearsals, musical performances and field trips will all be dashed until Jan. 15, with a reevaluation planned for Jan. 7, according to a news release from the school system.
“Several months ago as we were planning for this school year, I was very clear: Not only do we want to start the 2021-2022 school year with fully in-person education for the majority of our students, we want to keep it that way for the entire year,” wrote Superintendent Michael J. Martirano in the release. “This decision has been made with that singular priority in mind.”
As of Wednesday morning, more than 3,700 students in the 57,000-student system were in quarantine, alongside 146 staff members, according to the system’s dashboard. Some 300 new COVID-19 cases were reported this week. That’s compared to the week before the Thanksgiving break, when 75 new cases were reported, according to Wednesday’s news release.
“The escalation in positive cases has put a strain on school health staff to accurately identify and complete close contact communications in an efficient manner,” Martirano wrote.
More than 30 schools in the county made the state’s list of school outbreaks, updated Wednesday morning. Hammond High School in Columbia was faring the worst, with 60 cases associated with an outbreak, which the state defines as at least two cases connected to each other within the building in 14 days, wherein the infected people live in different households.
Dr. Maura Rossman, health officer for the Howard County Health Department, said that she has been in communication with the school system on a daily basis throughout the pandemic. During periods of time where cases spike, such as during the last week, those talks increase.
“As we started to notice increasing trends in the school cases and school outbreaks, we have been even more in touch [with the school system],” Rossman said. “And what we found when looking at the recent data, there were a disproportionate amount of cases that were related to athletics or extra curricular activities within the last week.”
Rossman added that the increase in cases among athletes this winter, in her opinion, is “not terribly surprising.”
“Based on the types of sports being played in the winter, compared to the summer or fall, this was somewhat to be expected,” she said. “You can’t physically distance the same way you can while outside, athletes aren’t wearing masks ... the task of mitigating transmission becomes more difficult.”
River Hill boys basketball coach Matt Graves, whose team is among the only varsity programs in Howard County still yet to play a game this season because of a variety of COVID-related postponements, said that he saw the writing on the wall in relation to an eventual pause in action.
“Being one of the first teams in the county to experience a shut down when the season started last week, I saw this wave coming,” Graves said. “It became less about if, and instead a matter of when and for how long.”
Other county coaches had stronger reactions to the news.
Glenelg wrestling coach Matt Bichner called the decision to postpone “cowardly” and “a disgrace.” The Gladiators, who have reached the state dual meet championship finals four straight seasons, were supposed to wrestle Reservoir on Tuesday.
”County leadership dropped the ball and do not realize how this is going to affect its student-athletes. Nothing is going to change in a month,” Bichner said. “This is the first step in a process to cancel the winter sports season. COVID is going to be around forever. Everyone knew the risk when they signed up and they were willing to still pursue athletics.”
Longtime Marriotts Ridge wrestling coach Jason Conley echoed the sentiment that the athletes are the ones that suffer the most from a shut down.
“I feel horrible for these seniors! Missing out on their junior years and now the possibility of their senior year! I believe the mental damage is worse than COVID,” Conley said via text message. “Wrestling is what got me through high school.”
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Howard school officials declined to comment further on the shutdown.
“The decision to pause so we could develop better strategies so we can eventually safely return to athletics, in my opinion, was the right one at this time,” Rossman said.
Looking ahead to a month without practices or games, Graves said that keeping the athletes positive and “in the right frame of mind” becomes top priority.
“As a coach, our job becomes figuring out how to keep them motivated. We have to do whatever it takes to make sure they are mentally ready whenever we do return,” he said. “The thought of going back to virtual meetings, it’s tough. You want more than that for the kids, especially after everything they have been through in terms of losing last season. But if that’s all that is available, then that’s what you have to do and try to make the most of it.”
As a result of the outbreaks, the system is planning to offer COVID-19 screenings at schools, with the help of the Howard County Health Department and a testing provider, according to the release. At least one area school system, Baltimore City, already conducts surveillance testing for all students on a rotating basis.
Howard County Public Schools requires students and staff to wear masks in the building, and requires that employees be fully vaccinated or submit to regular testing.
Baltimore Sun sports editor Tim Schwartz contributed to this article