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Howard County school system suspends in-person support programs amid worsening coronavirus numbers

As the Howard County Board of Education considers a hybrid reopening plan for the second semester, the school system Monday announced the suspension of all in-person support programs beginning Thursday due to the county’s rapidly increasing coronavirus numbers.

Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano made the announcement at the beginning of the board’s work session Monday afternoon.

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“The COVID[-19] data and trends we are currently seeing in and beyond Maryland are sobering,” Martirano said. “... [Howard County’s] metrics push [the Howard County Public School System] into a much higher risk of COVID-19 being spread in our school buildings, and in fact, today, we suspended the in-person small group programs that are underway in our schools.”

The decision came a few hours after Howard County Executive Calvin Ball tightened gathering restrictions due to the county’s worsening coronavirus numbers. Starting 5 p.m. Tuesday, indoor gatherings of more than 10 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited.

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“When COVID-19 becomes this widespread, it makes it very difficult for contact tracing to be effective in identifying and isolation outbreaks,” Ball said at a news conference Monday. “As we approach Thanksgiving and our winter holidays, it is vital that we act swiftly and thoughtfully to stop this spike in cases, keep our residents safe and well, and continue to support our business community. Our contact tracing efforts show that a majority of transmission of the COVID-19 virus has been from close relatives, family and friends.”

Howard County saw a record 472 coronavirus cases last week, and the seven-day rolling average new-case rate was a record 19.5 per 100,000 as of Saturday, according to the Howard County Health Department. Two of the last seven days have seen daily positivity rates of over 5%, and the weekly positivity rate was 4.99% on Saturday.

School system officials will reevaluate the county’s health metrics on Nov. 30 to decide whether to resume the in-person programs on Dec. 3, according to a news release Monday. The announcement does not impact the school system’s meals program, but SAT and ACT testing on Dec. 5 and 12 at Howard County schools has also been canceled.

In mid-September, amid the school system’s virtual learning model due to the coronavirus pandemic, the district laid out a plan to provide several in-person support programs for the county’s students who need them most. The school system then rolled out several of the programs starting in late September and October, 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.

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

Manor Woods Elementary School, one of the schools being used for in-person support, was listed on the Maryland Department of Health’s school coronavirus dashboard as having two positive cases as of Nov. 11. While not part of the Howard County Public School System, Glenelg Country School two weeks ago temporarily stopped hybrid learning and went back to a fully virtual model after reporting three positive cases. The number of cases at the Ellicott City-based private school, which is now back to its hybrid model, was up to eight cases on Nov. 11, according to the dashboard.

In addition to in-person programs, the return of high school sports in Howard County could also be in jeopardy. Voluntary conditioning was supposed to begin Monday, but the school system announced in a news release last week that the workouts were canceled “due to a recent rapid escalation of COVID-19 cases in Howard County.”

The announcement, however, does not change the current plan for high school athletics. Winter sports practices are currently scheduled to begin Dec. 7, with the first athletic competitions beginning Jan. 4 and ending Feb. 13. Fall sports under this plan would begin Feb. 13 and conclude competitions April 17. Spring sports would begin April 17 and end June 19.

However, the sports plan, as well as any hybrid learning model, is subject to the status of the coronavirus metrics in the county. In October, the Board of Education voted on health parameters the school system will follow when making reopening decisions in the future.

To move into a hybrid model for the second semester which begins Feb. 1, the board determined that the seven-day positivity rate in Howard County should be less than 5% and the seven-day rolling average new-case rate should be less than 10 per 100,000.

According to the health metrics the board approved in October, the current coronavirus numbers in the county would allow for conditioning and noncontact practices for high school teams, but not athletic competitions, if the season does begin Dec. 7.

The board will vote on whether to adopt a hybrid learning plan Thursday.

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Baltimore Sun Media reporter Ana Faguy contributed to this article.

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