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Updates from the Superintendent, March 11, 2021: HCPSS Return to In-Person Instruction and Health Protocols

March 11th, 2021

The following statement was issued to Howard County Public School System families by HCPSS Superintendent Dr. Michael Martirano on March 11, 2021:

This Saturday marks the one year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on schools. At this time last year, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Salmon joined Governor Larry Hogan at a press conference to announce the state-mandated closure of schools. In many ways, it’s hard to believe that was just one year ago. At the same time, it seems like it has been such a long time since we could gather, hug, shake hands and roam maskless through schools, stores and other establishments.

Twelve months later, on March 1, we welcomed back our first phase of students in our implementation of the Bridge to Normalized Instruction. Next Monday, we will progress to phase 2 and welcome back students in grades Pre-K-2 who opted to return. This return to in-person instruction, along with the start of high school athletics, are gratifying steps toward a return to normalcy.

We are now in our second week of hybrid learning, and making final preparations for welcoming the second phase of students to our classrooms next week. I want to give you an update on the transition and share the latest information about school readiness, notification protocols, athletics spectator guidelines and graduation plans.

Bridge to Normalized Instruction

On Monday, March 1, approximately 4,000 students returned to school buildings for 5 days-per-week instruction as part of the first phase of the Howard County Public School System Bridge to Normalized Instruction Hybrid Instructional Model. Beginning next week, HCPSS will welcome back students in grades Pre-K through 2 two days each week per group (A or B) in a hybrid model. During the week of March 29, students in grades 3-5, 6, 9, 12, and those who participate in Career and Technical Education at ARL will begin returning for two in-school days weekly. Lastly, the week of April 12, all remaining students, including grades 7-8 and 10-11 return for a hybrid model. Students who wish to remain virtual will continue to have that option for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.

While staffing remains a challenge, our school administrators have made internal adjustments such as blending classes and using administrative teams for class coverage. We are working to ensure all elementary schools have adequate staffing coverage through a combination of newly hired classroom monitors and substitute teachers, coverage support from central office and school based staff, and creative problem solving by school based administrators and teacher leaders. It has been all-hands on deck to support our students’ return to in-person learning.

Maintaining Healthy School Environments

HCPSS staff prepared an extensive building readiness checklist and conducted walk-through inspections at every school building. The results of those reports are posted on the Facilities Checklist website. Additionally, positive cases self-reported to HCPSS of students, staff or visitors in school/office buildings during their contagious period are added to the HCPSS COVID-19 Dashboard. Starting yesterday, March 10, HCPSS data is being updated each weekday rather than once a week.

The recent general downward trends in COVID-19 infections are encouraging, but I cannot overstress the need to continue to take precautions. Between March 1 and 9, there have been 12 positive COVID-19 cases in either students or staff, all of which were determined by contact tracing to have been brought into our schools from outside gatherings. The majority of these cases have impacted HCPSS athletics teams and scheduled contests. Fortunately, our HCPSS health and safety protocols have proven effective, as there has been zero spread in schools or on athletics teams resulting from these cases.

In order to continue to reduce the spread of the virus so our classrooms may remain open and athletic contests may continue, I urge all students, parents/guardians and community members to adhere to these safe practices:

COVID-19 Positive Case Response

HCPSS developed protocols for responding to positive cases in schools in conjunction with the Howard County Health Department (HCHD). HCHD performs contact tracings on Howard County residents who test positive for COVID-19, and HCPSS is notified of a positive case if there is a public health risk to the school community as determined through the contact tracing process. A Health Department Investigator is assigned to each case and informs close contacts who may have been exposed.

HCPSS Health Services staff members work closely with HCHD to ensure that anyone who may have been exposed is contacted. Additionally, school administrators collaborate with staff from the HCPSS Health Services, School Management and Instructional Leadership, and Communications offices to issue communications to the appropriate communities. This messaging is guided by HCHD recommendations and is strictly aligned with regulations defined by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPPA, to protect the medical privacy of individuals.

If you believe your child may have been exposed and has not been contacted by HCHD or HCPSS, you are advised to contact the Howard County Health Department directly to understand why they were not contacted.

Staff Vaccinations

This week, HCPSS staff were surveyed to gauge how many have received or still need the COVID-19 vaccine. Based on the results, we know that over 90% of staff have received at least their first dose or are scheduled to do so. With the announcement of additional doses provided by Johns Hopkins Medicine (JHM) this week, we believe that almost 95% of our staff who wish to receive the vaccine will have had their first dose by the end of the weekend. System and school leaders are connecting with staff and bus contractors who may have missed vaccine notification emails to ensure that everyone who wishes to receive the vaccine has had an opportunity. I deeply appreciate the continued efforts of HCHD and JHM to provide vaccinations to HCPSS staff, and our school nurses and health assistants who have been administering those vaccinations. We know vaccine supply locally has been limited and I appreciate many of our staff members who have been able to obtain vaccine doses from pharmacies, clinics, and the state’s mass vaccination sites.

Spectators at Athletics Contests

Governor Hogan has issued new orders that allow our system to expand the number of spectators permitted at our athletic contests. Beginning with contests scheduled for Friday evening after 5 p.m., student athletes in each sport will have two passes per game for spectators to attend both home and away games. The stricter maximum attendance limits previously in effect allowed spectators at home games only. All attendees must wear masks and adhere to strict social distancing measures at all indoor and outdoor venues. We will continue to assess levels of attendance and adherence to the health guidelines, and hope to expand these limits as soon as we feel confident in doing so.

Senior Graduations

The Governor’s new orders allow for greater possibilities regarding in-person graduation ceremonies. I am optimistic that the overall decrease in COVID-19 infections and increasing vaccine distribution should allow us to hold these momentous celebrations in-person this year. At this time, we are planning to hold in-person graduation ceremonies for each high school at Merriweather Post Pavilion. We will provide additional information soon regarding the numbers of attendees and health guidelines that will be in place.

The HCPSS Help site provides additional information related to contact tracing and other topics associated with COVID-19 and the return to normalized instruction, and I encourage you to continue referring to this valuable resource, which is regularly updated.

Thank you for your support as we continue in our transition to hybrid in-person/virtual learning and toward the eventual return to normalized instruction. Best wishes for a peaceful and healthy weekend.