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Howard superintendent: School staff COVID-19 vaccinations not a ‘prerequisite’ for return of in-person learning

Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said Thursday that all system staff being vaccinated against COVID-19 will not be a “prerequisite” to return to a hybrid form of in-person learning on March 1.

During a joint news conference with other county leaders Thursday at Marriotts Ridge High School, Martirano reiterated what he and others — such as Dr. Maura Rossman, Howard County’s health officer, and Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland’s acting deputy secretary for public health — have said the past week.

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While Martirano said he wants all of the approximately 10,000 school system staff — including nurses, custodians, food staff, administrators and educators — to be vaccinated before returning March 1, the current supply of COVID-19 vaccines will make that goal unlikely. Rossman said Thursday the county has the capacity to vaccinate 20,000 people a day but received fewer than 5,000 doses this week.

“We want our children back in school, and we want our staff back in school. But we must do that safely,” Martirano said. “... A prerequisite of that is not necessarily a return to school by every individual receiving a vaccine. We must adhere to [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance that we must all wear masks, social distance, wash hands and put all other mitigating factors in place to prevent the spread.”

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On Tuesday, the Howard County Board of Education unanimously approved a hybrid model with a phased-in reopening to begin March 1 and end April 12. During a work session with the board Monday, though, Rossman said it would be “impossible” for her to guarantee that all school system staff could receive both doses of the vaccine by March 1.

“For reopening plans, I totally agree, on many different levels, but even just from vaccine availability, that you can’t predicate your decision-making on the thought that everyone would be able to be vaccinated,” Rossman said Monday.

Martirano said the system’s projection of 10,000 staff members who are willing to take the vaccine is based on a survey the district did earlier this month. However, that figure will likely be a little lower, considering staff who opt to retire or resign instead of returning to school buildings will not be included in the tier of the county’s Phase 1B, according to schools spokesperson Brian Bassett.

Schools staff received an email Thursday with a form to determine whether they will return, resign, retire or take leave ahead of the start of hybrid learning between March 1 and April 12. The deadline to respond is Feb. 5. The district has been in fully virtual learning since last April after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered school buildings in March.

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Phase 1B includes residents ages 75 or older, child care professionals, private school educators and those living in congregate living facilities — all of whom are eligible to register for the vaccine online or by phone. It also includes Howard County Public School System staff, which Martirano split into four different tiers: school nurses and health assistants; staff currently working in person, such as custodians and food and nutrition staff; all school-based staff, including current substitute teachers; and all other nonschool-based staff.

Martirano said 107 of the school system’s 147 school nurses and health assistants have received their first dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Both vaccines require a second shot about three to four weeks after the first dose.

Martirano said this is a “crucial” step for the vaccination effort, as the nurses and health assistants will be the ones helping to inoculate school system staff and others in the community in the coming weeks. Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said those in the school system’s second tier could begin receiving the vaccine next week. The largest group, which includes paraeducators and teachers, is tier three. Once the county has enough doses, staff in tiers two, three and four will receive emails to sign up for vaccination.

“I want our students, our educators [and] our staff members to be safely back in our schools buildings as soon as possible,” Ball said.

While less than 10,000 students are expected to return March 1 in the hybrid plan, about 75% of staff will be asked to return Feb. 22 to prepare and support the first group of students, according to David Larner, the school system’s chief human resources officer.

Vaccinating educators is something teachers unions across the country are urging districts to prioritize before restarting in-person learning.

“In order to be successful and build trust among educators, any model needs to be underpinned by accelerating getting vaccines to educators and transparently implementing needed safety measures in all schools,” wrote Colleen Morris, president of the county’s teachers union, following the hybrid model approval Tuesday. “When educators are not assured those things, and when the metrics and plans change on a dime, it’s no wonder that many educators feel ignored and endangered.”

Also during the news conference, Ball said the county will utilize four high schools — including Centennial in Ellicott City, Long Reach in Columbia, Marriotts Ridge in Marriottsville and Reservoir in Fulton — as vaccination sites once more doses start arriving in the coming weeks. Right now, the county has two vaccination sites at the Howard County Health Department building and Howard Community College.

On Saturday the county plans to vaccinate 2,000 older adults as part of its “Super Senior Saturday.”

Currently, the county is operating a call center to answer residents’ questions surrounding the vaccine and distribution. In the past two days, Ball said the call center received 2,000 calls. On Feb. 8, the county plans to host a vaccine telephone town hall to continue to answer questions.

Pre-registration for the vaccine is currently open for all groups in Phase 1B including those age 75 or older, K-12 educators and staff, child care providers who are not part of the school system, adults with developmental disabilities and those ages 65 to 74 in Phase 1C.

“No vaccine will go to waste in this county and there is no vaccine just sitting on a shelf,” Ball said. “As soon as we receive the vaccine, we will administer it effectively and efficiently.”

The county already has more than 20,000 residents ages 75 or older pre-registered, as well as 2,000 residents who are nonpublic school employees or child care providers and more than 300 developmentally disabled adults.

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“At the end of the day, we can only administer as much vaccine as we have,” Ball said.

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Howard County residents who need help pre-registering can email HoCovaccine@howardcountymd.gov or call 410-313-6284.

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