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Howard County school board approves health parameters for future reopening decisions

The Howard County Board of Education on Thursday determined the health parameters the school system will follow when making reopening decisions in the future.

The board unanimously approved the school system’s proposed health metrics in determining whether it’s safe to open schools in a hybrid in-person model amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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To move into a hybrid model for the second semester, the board determined that the seven-day positivity rate in Howard County — which measures the percent at which tests return positive over a week — should be less than 5% and the seven-day rolling average new-case rate should be fewer than 10 per 100,000.

“This is exactly what we’ve been asking for,” Vice Chairperson Vicky Cutroneo said. “It’s not going to be perfect, and I think there’s always an opportunity to amend given new information. But this is what we’ve been asking for. We need metrics [as] guideposts. To move the process forward toward getting back into the building, we need to have metrics. Without them, we can’t.”

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As of Thursday, Howard’s positivity rate was 2.50%, where it has hovered for most of October, according to data from the Howard County Health Department. Howard’s new-case rate was 7.02 per 100,000, as of Wednesday, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

The vote on Thursday did not determine whether the school system will enter a hybrid model or what the plan will look like; it only set the health guidelines the district will follow moving forward. At the Oct. 8 school board meeting, Superintendent Michael Martirano reiterated that the school system would maintain its virtual learning model through the end of January, which the board originally voted to do in July. The school system has, however, offered some face-to-face programs to the district’s students who need it most.

The school system, which originally closed schools in mid-March and started its virtual model in late April, will present its hybrid plan to the board on Nov. 5. The board is set to reevaluate and potentially vote on the plan on Nov. 19.

As the meeting began, about 100 parents and students gathered outside the Howard County Board of Education headquarters to advocate for a plan to get kids back into schools for in-person learning.

Prior to voting, Howard County Health Officer Dr. Maura Rossman presented her recommendations and answered a long list of questions from board members.

Rossman recommended a staggered schedule in a hybrid model, open windows in classrooms and desks placed 6 feet apart. She also referenced studies that have shown a lower risk for transmission in children younger than 10 as evidence for possibly starting a hybrid model for elementary school students first.

“When I talk about returning safely to school, it is not a binary [choice between] everyone going back or no one going back,” Rossman said. “I really think we need to have a balanced, progressive and thoughtful approach rather than everyone or no one.”

Rossman did, however, express concern about what Howard County’s metrics will show in the coming months due to the holiday season approaching, people spending more time inside due to the weather and the relaxing of restrictions.

“We’re talking about February. In COVID[-19] time, a day and a week is like a year. Forecasting what February and our metrics are going to look like, I don’t know. I am concerned, not related to school reopening in Howard County, but that our metrics may not look so good in a month,” Rossman said.

“You’ve been hearing about influenza, we’re going indoors more and as much as [people] want to adhere to social distancing, Thanksgiving and Christmas and other holidays are coming. That emotional risk for some people may outweigh the benefit of socially distancing. I’m concerned about that.”

The board also unanimously approved the health metrics that would, if a hybrid model is deployed, trigger a return to virtual learning for either a particular classroom, school or the entire district.

Under the parameters passed Thursday, the entire school system would be forced to return to virtual learning if the seven-day positivity rate is above 5% and the seven-day rolling average new-case rate is 10 or more per 100,000 for two straight weeks.

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A particular class would revert to virtual learning if there is an outbreak — defined by the Maryland Department of Health as two or more people testing positive for COVID-19 in a 14-day period, excluding those from the same household. Classes with outbreaks can return to in-person instruction when the threat of transmission has ended.

An entire school would return to a virtual model if three or more classrooms have outbreaks or if more than 5% of unrelated students and staff have contracted the virus within a 14-day period.

“I’m concerned,” said Zach Koung, the board’s student member, to Rossman after asking about the risk of reopening. “We’re virtual now, and say we go to hybrid in February. Then, two weeks later, we shut back down to virtual. Then we’re going back into hybrid again, then virtual, then hybrid again. And I think that’s more disruption to students than just the virtual education model.”

“This is why we determine metrics, so that if and when you decide, whatever date, you can say it’s reasonable, given all the strategies, to [reopen schools],” Rossman responded. “Yes, you will run the risk that you may have to close a classroom or a school or the system. That is the risk. The assumption here is that I can’t guarantee zero risk.”

In addition to approving the health metrics the school system will follow, the board approved a list of preparations regarding safely welcoming students and teachers back to schools. Those preparations, which were presented by school system Director of Leadership Development Scott Ruehl, include facility modifications, supplying personal protective equipment, cleaning protocols, transportation arrangements and communication procedures for positive cases.

Ruehl said all students and staff, excluding those with specific medical exceptions, will be required to wear face coverings while in school buildings.

Kerrie Wagaman, the school system’s health services coordinator, said during her presentation that when a positive case occurs, the school system will notify anyone who may have been exposed, including parents of students. Anyone who comes into contact with someone who has tested positive must either quarantine for two weeks or provide a negative coronavirus test.

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School system officials will present a hybrid model to the board on Nov. 5, and the board is set to vote on the plan as early as Nov. 19.

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