Updated COVID Mitigation Efforts in HCPSS Schools, Jan. 4, 2022
January 4th, 2022
The Maryland Department of Health posted Interim K-12 School and Child Care COVID-19 Isolation and Quarantine Guidance on Jan. 6, in response to the recent changes in COVID-19 isolation and quarantine recommendations.
Jump to: Isolating, Quarantining & Contact Tracing | Face Masks | COVID Testing | Cafeteria Health Mitigations | Virtual Instruction | Impact on Extracurricular Activities
Last week, a message was sent to the community with several updates related to health mitigation efforts in place in HCPSS schools. Today, we want to provide a comprehensive update that includes information related to:
- Quarantining and contact tracing
- Masking in schools
- Testing availability
- Health mitigation efforts in cafeterias
- Virtual instruction
These are in addition to previously shared multi-layered mitigation strategies we already have implemented in schools, including universal indoor masking; a vaccine verification and testing program for staff and student-athletes; enhancements to our school ventilation systems including HEPA filters in all classrooms; opportunities for outdoor lunch; and several other approaches to maintain healthy environments.
We continue to seek ways to enhance our efforts and add new strategies recommended by health professionals to keep learning environments healthy. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, HCPSS health-related decisions have been made with extensive input and guidance from Howard County Health Officer Dr. Maura J. Rossman and Howard County Health Department staff, who lead all aspects of vaccine distribution, testing and contact tracing in the county.
Keeping schools healthy, safe and open for in-person instruction remains our top priorities because we know that the school environment is most conducive to student learning and support. The following updates are provided to that end.
Isolating, Quarantining & Contact Tracing
New CDC Quarantine Guidance
Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a recommendation to shorten quarantine duration to five days. This recommendation was adopted by the Howard County Health Department (HCHD) and detailed in the Dec. 31, 2021, message to the community and staff.
In alignment with guidelines provided by HCHD for positive cases, all students and staff who test positive for COVID or are showing symptoms must be isolated for 5 days regardless of vaccination status and may not return to school until:
- They have been out at least 5 days from the onset of symptoms or upon receiving a positive test without symptoms, and
- Remain fever-free for 24 hours, and
- Show a consistent improvement of symptoms.
Also in alignment with HCHD guidelines, you should quarantine if:
- You are ages 18 or older and completed the primary series of recommended vaccine, but have not received a recommended booster when eligible.
- You are not vaccinated or have not completed a primary vaccine series.
If you came into close contact with someone with COVID-19, you do not need to quarantine if you have received all recommended vaccine doses, including boosters when eligible.
It also is recommended that all individuals get tested 5 days after exposure, regardless of whether they are exhibiting symptoms.
More information related to HCPSS vaccination/testing requirements for staff and student-athletes will be provided in the near future.
Update 1/9/22: HCPSS recently made adjustments to its contact tracing process to ensure we are meeting legal requirements to provide accurate and timely data to the health department while supporting our students and staff who test positive. HCPSS will continue the current processes for students who test positive by sending names and addresses to the Howard County Health Department, making personal contacts with families of students with COVID, and gathering information about cohorts where there are multiple cases of positive students. Full details on contact tracing may be found online.
Mask Availability in Schools
Last week, 200,000 KN95 masks were ordered and are scheduled to be delivered to the HCPSS Logistics Center by the end of this week. Masks will be distributed to schools and offices as quickly as possible and each student and each staff member will receive two KN95 masks with additional masks available at schools as needed.
While KN95 masks are recommended by the CDC and students may bring their own if they have them, they are not mandated. Students and staff will be permitted to use disposable or cloth masks. Disposable masks will continue to be available in schools for all students and staff, especially for younger children for whom KN95 masks may not fit.
CDC guidance for schools has not changed regarding removing masks while eating. Students and staff are permitted to remove their masks while eating or drinking, and are required to wear masks at all other times while indoors. Some students and staff have received medical exemptions for mask-wearing, which will continue to be granted.
School administrators will hold anyone in the building accountable for properly wearing a mask when it is required. Should a concern arise, schools will utilize a variety of strategies to ensure proper masking. Additionally, students may be subject to discipline as outlined in the HCPSS Student Code of Conduct as a manner of disrespect for refusing to wear a mask or wear it properly. Staff refusing to wear a mask or refusing to wear their mask properly are subject to discipline contained in Board of Education Policy 7030 Employee Conduct and Discipline.
Testing Availability in Schools
Each school has diagnostic testing available for students and staff who exhibit symptoms. An additional 5,000 COVID-19 Antigen Rapid test kits have been ordered and are expected to arrive at the HCPSS Logistics Center by the end of this week.
MAKO Medical continues to provide weekly testing opportunities at each high school for unvaccinated staff and student-athletes. There also is additional testing available to registered staff. Each MAKO site carries approximately 500 testing units each day.
Beginning the week of January 10th, MAKO’s program will be expanded to offer testing from 2:30-5 p.m. at additional high school locations for all staff and continue for unvaccinated student-athletes. In addition, HCPSS and MAKO are exploring offering additional evening and weekend testing opportunities available to all students and staff. More information will be provided as decisions are finalized.
Additionally, HCPSS will work collaboratively with HCHD to implement surveillance testing at schools when there are exceptionally high case rates and HCHD recommends this approach. This testing was implemented at two high schools prior to winter break.
Responding to New CDC Guidance on Testing
The CDC’s new guidance clarifies that a person exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 should “test on day 5, if possible.” HCPSS strongly encourages this practice, and we hope that our additional testing capabilities will supplement what is being provided by HCHD and other community providers.
Health Mitigation Efforts in Cafeterias
HCPSS will continue to align with CDC’s expectation of “strict mask use” at all times when students and staff are not eating or drinking.
In an effort to layer additional mitigation efforts in cafeterias beyond those in areas where students will be masked, HCPSS has implemented the following strategies:
- Outdoor eating will continue to be available at all schools as weather and staff coverage permit. Parents/guardians of students who wish to eat outside should contact the school and students should dress appropriately for cold temperatures.
- Plexiglass dividers are still in place on elementary school and sixth-grade lunch tables to provide separation for our youngest students who were only recently able to be vaccinated.
- HVAC systems equipped with MERV-13 filters, where applicable, to continue to circulate outside air regularly.
- Carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors with data-logging capabilities have been installed in all school cafeterias. The level of CO2 in the room air, measured in parts per million (ppm) CO2, provides an indication of the effectiveness of the outdoor air ventilation in diluting airborne contaminants.
- HEPA filters have been installed in cafeterias as well as other locations throughout schools.
These efforts have been implemented following collaboration with the Outdoor Lunch Parent Advocacy Group, which has provided meaningful feedback and input into mitigation efforts in cafeterias. The strategies implemented by HCPSS are beyond compliance with the recommendations of the CDC and American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers.
At this time, schools are not able to add additional lunch shifts to the school day. There are many factors, including staffing limitations and the significant impact on the instructional schedule, that prevent this from being implemented. Further, eating in classrooms beyond designated times will be limited.
Throughout the pandemic, we have maintained dialog with HCHD and school administrators to assess when high levels of unavailable staff and/or students result in operational limitations that require a school to move to a temporary virtual instruction model.
If a school moves to virtual instruction, it will remain virtual only until adequate numbers of staff and/or students may return safely and instruction may feasibly be provided in an in-person setting. These decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis in collaboration with HCHD, while still meeting the State’s requirements and expectations regarding in-person instruction.
While there are no predetermined numbers or percentages that would automatically result in the decision to close a school building, the following considerations are used by HCHD and HCPSS when making decisions to transition to virtual instruction:
- Number of students testing positive
- Number of students in quarantine
- Number of staff testing positive
- Number of staff in quarantine and the impact on schools
- Impact on and availability of county resources
- Availability of special programs
- Testing capabilities in schools and in the county
- Guidance by the Maryland State Department of Education
- Guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Additional considerations based on current variables
Further, the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) has the authority to close school buildings, as it did in March of 2020. MSDE provided clarity last week that, “Only on a case-by-case basis under the most exigent of circumstances and in close consultation with State and local health departments will MSDE support a temporary transition of a school system to virtual learning…”
The State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury also stated, “There is strong consensus from researchers that schools can and should stay open for in-person instruction and that school leaders must use every tool at their disposal to do so given the adverse effects closures have on students and their families. We have seen the devastating impact of school closures and long-term virtual instruction on student learning here in Maryland and across the country. When COVID-19 transmission increases and health measures become a necessity, schools must be the last places to close.”
HCPSS will continue to do all we can to maintain in-person instruction. At the same time, we are preparing for the possibility that a school, or many schools, will need to transition to virtual instruction for a short period of time. To that end, families soon will receive information to reevaluate device needs of students. HCPSS distributed several thousand devices last year, but new students and device attrition requires us to regularly evaluate student needs with available inventory.
School Outbreak Impact on Extracurricular Activities
Prior to winter break, several HCPSS schools were designated to have school outbreaks as defined by the Maryland Department of Health (MDH). All extracurricular activities, including athletics, were paused until a better assessment could be made for the impact of spread in each activity.
Effective Jan. 4, 2022, individual schools identified as an outbreak school will evaluate all after school/extracurricular activities (including athletics) using the following criteria:
- Activities with 25 or more participants will pause in-person activities when the current number of positive cases associated with that activity is five or more. The activity may resume when less than five students who tested positive are still in isolation.
- Activities with less than 25 participants will pause in-person activities when the current number of positive cases associated with that activity is three or more. The activity may resume when less than three students who tested positive are still in isolation.
Schools that have already been designated as outbreak schools will evaluate activities and resume those that meet the criteria above.