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Start of Howard County high school winter sports season postponed until January

HCPSS announced on Monday, Nov. 30, that the start of the winter athletic season has been postponed until Jan. 4.
HCPSS announced on Monday, Nov. 30, that the start of the winter athletic season has been postponed until Jan. 4. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda)

In-person Howard County high school athletics will not return before 2021.

The Howard County Public School System announced Monday via a press release that the start of the winter athletic season, which was previously scheduled to start on Dec. 7, has been postponed until Jan. 4, 2021. The release referenced rising numbers in the county over the last few weeks, with metrics resulting in the school system deciding to suspend all in-person opportunities as of Nov. 19.

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“Howard County continues to regularly remain above 5% COVID-19 test positivity rate and a case rate of more than 25 per 100,000,” according to the release. “HCPSS will regularly monitor health metrics and inform staff of a possible resumption of in-person opportunities after winter break when the health environment permits.”

Virtual athletics sessions, which have been ongoing since late September, will continue through December. Registration for winter athletics will remain open via HCPSS Connect.

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“Additional information and schedules will be provided to families closer to that time,” according to the release.

Howard County had previously adopted the plan approved by the Maryland State Board of Education in late October that would have had the winter season run from Dec. 7 to Feb. 13. Under state rules, athletes must practice for 20 days before they can take part in competitions — meaning the first play date would have been Jan. 4.

Now, if practices begin on Jan. 4, that first date for competition for Howard County programs will be in late January. That leaves only two-and-a-half weeks to fit in games for winter programs in accordance with the state’s winter season guidelines. The approved plan calls for Fall sports to begin on Feb. 13 and conclude competitions on April 17. Spring sports in the plan would begin April 17 and run to June 19.

The school system’s announcement Monday also included a suspension of all other forms of in-person activities, including the district’s small group support programs for the students who need them most.

Superintendent Michael Martirano announced the suspension of the school system’s limited in-person programs on Nov. 16. Later that night, the Board of Education rejected the school system’s proposed hybrid learning model and voted for most of the school system’s students to remain in virtual learning through at least mid April.

“The COVID[-19] data and trends we are currently seeing in and beyond Maryland are sobering,” Martirano said during a school board meeting on Nov. 16. “... [Howard County’s] metrics push [the school system] into a much higher risk of COVID-19 being spread in our school buildings.”

Like most of the country and state, Howard County’s coronavirus numbers have worsened over the past month. The county has reported more than 100 cases in six of the last 12 days, including a record 164 on Nov. 25. Prior to November, the highest number of single-day cases in Howard County was 84 on May 27.

As of Monday, the county’s seven-day positivity rate, which measures the percent at which tests return positive over a week, is 5.69% — the highest since June 19. The weekly positivity rate in the county has been over 5% for 10 of the last 12 days, and the daily positivity rate on Sunday was 8.15% — the highest daily rate since June 7.

Another key metric is the county’s seven-day rolling average new-case rate. Before November, the figure had never been over 12.5 per 100,000. On Monday, the county reported a weekly average case rate of 29.43 per 100,000. On Nov. 26, it was 31.1 per 100,000.

In the last month, the county’s weekly average new-case rate has increased 210% compared to a 54% increase in testing. Therefore, the increase in testing is not the main reason for the increase in cases in Howard County, as the case numbers are increasing at a faster pace than the testing numbers.

The county’s weekly positivity rate and the seven-day average new-case rate are two key metrics for the school system. In late October, the Board of Education determined the health parameters the school system will follow when deciding on when students can and cannot gather, and those two metrics are the main ones the school system is using when making decisions.

According to the approved chart, the county must have a weekly positivity rate under 5% and a weekly case rate under 10 per 100,000 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.

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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, including athletics and small group programs, will be conducted.

This story may be updated.

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