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Howard students aren’t back in classrooms. Those in neighboring Carroll are. School officials discuss why.

During a joint meeting between the Howard County school board and the County Council this week, council member Christiana Mercer Rigby said she’s received emails from residents about Carroll County Public Schools restarting its hybrid learning model while Howard is still in virtual learning.

While the meeting was mostly about health metrics and the impacts of the vaccine rollout in the county, comparisons and questions about the stark contrast between Howard’s approach to education amid the coronavirus pandemic and Carroll’s were frequent.

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“Based on my knowledge of how Carroll County has done it, I cannot imagine knowing the details about Carroll County and thinking that it would be a best practice,” Rigby said during the meeting.

Despite having nearly identical COVID-19 numbers, the two neighboring school boards have made drastically different decisions in recent months. Last week, the Carroll County school board voted to restart the district’s hybrid model, while Howard’s school board voted last month to keep its students in virtual learning until at least mid-April.

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Howard’s school board also has approved the specific levels that key health metrics must reach to allow students to return to in-person learning or a hybrid model, while the vote to return by Carroll’s school board was against the recommendation of Carroll County’s health officer and the district’s superintendent.

Carroll’s weekly positivity rate is 8.04% compared to 8.03% in Howard, while the seven-day rolling average new-case rate in Carroll is 47.58 per 100,000 residents versus 47.24 in Howard, according to the Maryland Department of Health as of Tuesday.

Martirano said Monday that Carroll’s school board made some decisions “politically” that led to the return of hybrid learning.

“Some of the educational expertise that has been conveyed has been overridden, from what my knowledge is of it, [by] the Board of Education, who believes they should be taking more risks and getting young people back in school,” Martirano said. “That has created an incredible amount of concern for their teachers ... because the metrics are at a high level there and the school board has made the decision to move forward.”

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Carroll’s hybrid model, which originally began in October, was stalled due to staffing issues and then ended in November due to an increase in COVID-19 cases in the county. In Howard, meanwhile, the school board voted twice on whether to keep its students in a virtual learning model until at least April, and both times the vote to move to a hybrid model failed, 4-4.

In the fall, some small groups of students were receiving in-person learning support in Howard County, but no students have been in classrooms since mid-November. The school system’s current plan is for small group programs to restart in February and a hybrid model to begin in mid-April, but both are dependent on the county’s health metrics drastically improving.

Specifically, Howard school board member Antonia Barkley Watts said Monday she disagrees with Carroll County’s method of having some teachers instructing virtually while a substitute teacher monitors the students in person.

“I feel as if you want to return your child in person, there’s an expectation that your child is also being taught by a teacher and is being taught by hopefully their teacher,” Watts said.

“I do not support that at all because that defeats the whole purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish and creates additional challenges,” Martirano added.

Howard County Council member David Yungmann didn’t comment specifically about Carroll County on Monday, but he did say he believes there’s a way for the Howard County school system to “figure out” the complications with in-person learning to get students back in classrooms soon.

“I have to think that there are systems out there that have figured out the distancing stuff, have figured out where kids can eat and other things, and I hear us struggling to solve some of those issues,” Yungmann said. “Maybe I’m naive, but I have to think that there’s some school system somewhere that has put the ball in the hole and it’s working.”

While Carroll County did come up multiple times during the meeting, most of the discussion was between council and board members about the school system’s current plans, metrics and how the vaccine rollout could impact future decisions.

Yungmann, who is the only Republican on the five-person council, asked Martirano if the Howard County teachers’ union must approve a reopening plan before students are able to go back to classrooms.

“Technically, no, they do not have to approve,” Martirano said. “But we do have memorandums of understanding with our teacher groups and our administrators. There’s an expectation of collaboration and planning in that process of seeking input. But, technically speaking, does it have to be approved by [the Howard County Education Association] for the board to [vote to go back]? The answer is definitively no.”

Council member Deb Jung asked Martirano if ancillary staff such as food and nutrition staff are included in Phase 1B, as educators are, of the county’s vaccination plan. He didn’t have a definitive answer, but he did say that his opinion is that they should be.

That’s why, Martirano said, when the school system surveyed staff on whether they intend to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available, it was sent out to not just educators but all 10,750 staff members. The results from that survey, with about 70% of staff responding so far, is that 88% will take the vaccine when it’s offered.

County educators could begin getting vaccinated in February, with a few weeks between the two doses of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccine.

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Martirano and board member Vicky Cutroneo said a successful vaccine rollout could lead to a smoother return for students.

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For now, however, the only way the small group programs begin Feb. 1 or fall high school sports begin Feb. 13 is for the county’s health metrics to improve significantly and drop below the levels set by the board in October.

“I think the community transmission rate coming down is the key,” Cutroneo said.

She added, though, that the board can still reconsider the metrics it approved in October and update them if that’s what the guidance from health experts is amid the vaccine rollout.

“The metrics aren’t set in stone; we can revisit them,” Cutroneo said.

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