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Howard school system sets timeline for restart of in-person small group programs if COVID-19 metrics improve

The Howard County Board of Education held a work session Thursday night to discuss the school system’s plan to restart in-person small group support in February and logistics regarding a hybrid model for the fourth quarter.

While no votes were cast, school system Superintendent Michael Martirano said the district’s plan is for the limited in-person small group support that was being provided in the fall — before the spike in coronavirus numbers in November and December — to restart Feb. 1. Then, on April 14, the rolling out of a hybrid model for the general student population could begin, subject to board approval.

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However, Martirano repeated multiple times that any students and staff being sent back to the classroom — whether for small group programs or for a hybrid model in April — is dependent on the improvement of the county’s health metrics.

“My vision for this spring, metrics pending, is to have an opportunity for all students to return for the fourth quarter,” Martirano said.

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In October, the board approved the health parameters the school system must follow when making reopening decisions. The school system has been fully virtual since April after the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools in March.

Right now, the metrics — such as the county’s weekly positivity rate and weekly rolling average new-case rate — are much higher than the levels determined by the school board for a safe return.

The county’s weekly positivity rate — which measures the percent at which tests return positive over a week — is 7.79% as of Friday. The weekly new-case rate is 35.4 per 100,000 residents, according to Maryland Department of Health data.

To return to a hybrid learning model, according to the chart the board approved in October, the weekly positivity rate should be below 5.01% and the weekly case rate below 10 per 100,000. To return to small group programs, the weekly positivity rate must be below 5.14% and the weekly case rate below 20 per 100,000.

Howard’s improved metrics must be at or below these levels for two consecutive weeks to allow a return to small group support or the start of a hybrid model. Therefore, to start small group learning Feb. 1, the metrics would have to remain under those levels from Jan. 18 through Feb. 1.

The first small groups to go back would be those that first started in the fall, like the Teenage Parenting and Childcare Program. Then, other programs, such as the school-based learning centers for students especially struggling with virtual learning, would return.

What’s different about this potential rollout of small group programs is that it will be at every public school, not just the 26 that had them in the fall, according to Scott Ruehl, the school system’s director of leadership development.

To staff these programs, the school system on Wednesday notified the educators and other staff — such as paraeducators, reading specialists, math support teachers and school nurses — who could be asked to return to school buildings in February. Multiple school system leaders said Thursday the communication was about allowing staff to prepare and was not a guarantee that they all will be asked to return to school buildings, especially since the metrics must first improve.

Colleen Morris, president of the county teachers’ union, said she was “super upset” Wednesday when she heard from her members about the notification.

“Our members were upset [Wednesday],” Morris said. “That doesn’t mean that people aren’t going to be uncomfortable with decisions because they may be, but when they’re brought out and there are no good answers to the questions, which are valid questions, when their lives could be at risk ... it’s concerning.”

School board member Antonia Barkley Watts questioned Martirano on Thursday about why the Board of Education wasn’t notified that the school system was informing certain groups of staff about potentially returning to school buildings.

“I just am floored that we were not at all notified that this email was coming out until we started getting questions from people asking about what is going on,” Watts said. “And I can’t give them an answer because I’m getting screenshots of this email. Screenshots, that’s how I got the email first. We weren’t even CC’d on this. We didn’t get it from Central Office. We got it from the union. … My mind is blown that this is how we got this.”

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“You finding this information out from the community or from the union is unfortunate,” Martirano said in response. “We have involved the union in the discussions, and we’ve had great conversations with them. To represent the fact that they’ve not been a part of the planning is a misrepresentation, simply put. The bottom line is this list has been an internal communication to give possibilities of what that staff could be, to put people on notice, as we begin the process of reopening schools.”

Zach Koung, the board’s student member, asked how the school system has prepared for replacing the educators who say they will take leave or retire if asked to return to school buildings.

“This is a balancing act,” said David Larner, the school system’s chief human resources and professional development officer. “It is the hope that the vast majority of our staff do choose to go back. But certainly we also understand that some staff will choose to take leave, some staff will choose to retire and some staff will choose to resign. Especially with small groups, there will have to be school-based decisions on how to best deal with that impact.”

The board also discussed with school system leaders about how the county’s vaccine progress could impact returning to school buildings. At a news conference Thursday, Howard County Health Officer Maura Rossman said the county’s health department has administered more than 2,600 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, while Howard County Executive Calvin Ball provided updates on the vaccination effort.

The county is currently in Phase 1A, vaccinating the 5,000 to 7,000 people who fall into that category including licensed health care providers, first responders, nursing home residents and staff, and correctional health care staff and officers. Phase 1B includes approximately 30,000 to 35,000 people, including teachers, child care professionals, congregate living facilities and those older than 75. Ball estimates this phase will be completed by early March.

Rossman said Thursday that the health department is hiring and training additional volunteers for when Phase 1B begins, including using school system nurses to assist at clinics.

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School board Chairperson Chao Wu asked how vaccine distribution could change the school system’s timeline for educators returning the buildings.

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Ruehl said vaccine distribution is not the main factor in school reopening considerations, although it is a consideration.

The board added a reopening work session from 4 to 6 p.m. Jan. 26, and the vote on the school system’s hybrid model for the fourth quarter will be Feb. 11.

Also during the meeting:

  • Martirano said the school system has served more than 2 million free meals to its students so far this school year and 3.5 million since the beginning of the pandemic. The system distributed its millionth free meal in early June.
  • Martirano also said it is his “sincere hope” that senior activities like prom, senior awards and graduation can happen in person this year. No further details were given at Thursday’s meeting.

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