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Howard school system pushes back restart of in-person small group programs again due to coronavirus metrics

The Howard County Public School System on Tuesday once again delayed the return of its in-person small group programs due to the county’s “continued unfavorable COVID-19 rates,” according to a news release.

The earliest small group programs, which are seen as a step toward a possible hybrid model this spring, can return is Feb. 8. The decision to return for in-person support programs will continue to be evaluated two weeks in advance.

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“To allow sufficient time for schools and families to prepare, the decision to resume in-person programs must be made two weeks in advance of the effective date, and will depend on an assessment of health metrics, as well as other factors,” the school system’s news release states. “[School system] leaders will reassess health metrics each week to determine the viability of program reopening.”

The postponement comes about two weeks after school system Superintendent Michael Martirano presented the district’s plan to restart in-person small group support on Feb. 1 and begin a hybrid model in April. His plans, however, are dependent upon the county’s health metrics improving or school board approval.

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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. In total, 26 schools were being used for in-person support programs, according to schools spokesperson Brian Bassett.

The programs were suspended in mid-November due to the spike in coronavirus cases in the county, and the return of the support programs was delayed in late November and late December.

If the programs do return, what will be different about this potential rollout is that it will be at every public school, not just the 26 that had them in the fall, said Scott Ruehl, the school system’s director of leadership development, during a school board meeting earlier this month.

School system officials have said they will not return students to classrooms until the county’s coronavirus metrics improve.

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The school system is currently following the health parameters the Board of Education approved in October when determining when students can return to classrooms.

According to the approved chart, the county must have a weekly positivity rate under 5% and a seven-day average new-case rate under 10 per 100,000 residents 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 will be conducted.

As of Tuesday, the Maryland Department of Health reports the county’s weekly positivity rate is 6.65% and the weekly new-case rate is 31.98 per 100,000, both higher than the levels that could return students to classrooms. More than 200 Howard countians have died of COVID-19.

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