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Howard school system suspends in-person support programs through end of 2020 due to worsening coronavirus numbers

The Howard County Public School System announced Monday it is extending its suspension of all in-person support programs through the end of 2020 due to worsening coronavirus conditions in the county.

Superintendent Michael Martirano already had announced the suspension of the school system’s limited in-person programs due to the pandemic on Nov. 16. Since then, the county’s metrics have worsened, and the school system’s announcement via a news release Monday continues the suspension through until at least Jan. 4.

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“The COVID[-19] data and trends we are currently seeing in and beyond Maryland are sobering,” Martirano said during a school board meeting Nov. 16. “... [Howard County’s] metrics push [the school system] into a much higher risk of COVID-19 being spread in our school buildings.”

The small group programs started to roll out in late September amid the school system’s virtual learning model. The district laid out a plan to provide several in-person programs for the county’s students who need them most, including support for students in the Teenage Parenting and Childcare Program as well as school-based learning centers for students especially struggling with virtual education.

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According to school system spokesperson Brian Bassett, 26 schools were being used for in-person support programs.

The decision to suspend in-person support programs for the remainder of the year comes about two weeks after the Board of Education rejected the school system’s proposed hybrid learning model and voted for most of the school system’s students to remain in virtual learning through at least mid-April.

Like most of the country and state, Howard County’s coronavirus numbers have sharply increased over the past month. As of Monday, the county has reported more than 100 cases in six of the past 12 days, including a record 164 on Nov. 25. Before November, the highest number of single-day cases in Howard County was 84 on May 27.

As of Monday, the county’s seven-day positivity rate, which measures the percentage of tests that return positive in a week, is 5.69%, the highest since June 19. The weekly positivity rate in the county has been over 5% for 10 of the past 12 days, and the daily positivity rate on Sunday was 8.15%, which was the highest daily rate since June 7.

Another key metric is the county’s seven-day rolling average new-case rate. Before November, the figure had never been more than 12.5 per 100,000 people. On Monday, the county reported a weekly average case rate of 29.43 per 100,000.

In the past month, the county’s weekly average new-case rate has increased 210% compared to a 54% increase in testing. Therefore, the increase in testing is not the main reason for the increase in cases in Howard County, as the case numbers are increasing at a faster pace than the testing numbers.

The school system’s announcement Monday also included a suspension of all other forms of in-person activities, including athletics.

The county’s weekly positivity rate and the seven-day average new-case rate are two key metrics for the school system. In late October, the Board of Education determined the health parameters the school system will follow when deciding whether students can gather.

According to the approved chart, the county must have a weekly positivity rate under 5% and a weekly case rate under 10 per 100,000 to have hybrid learning and athletic practices or competitions. If the weekly positivity rate is between 5.01% and 5.13% and the seven-day case rate is between 10 and 20 per 100,000, the chart shows that some in-person programs and athletic conditioning can occur.

However, as the numbers show now, if the weekly positivity rate is higher than 5.13% and the weekly case rate is over 20 per 100,000, no in-person activities, including athletics and small group programs, will be conducted.

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