Back to school outfits in November? It’s certainly been that kind of year. Parents of preK- 2nd graders know that public schools in Calvert are opening for in-person learning this Monday. For some parents, kids, and school staff, this is a day to celebrate. For others, it triggers another 2020 moment of stress. For most, there are mixed emotions.
It’s important for everyone to understand that the administrators and staff at the Calvert County Public School System (CCPS), along with the Calvert County Board of Education (BOE) have had an ongoing series of planning discussions with the Calvert Health Department since late spring. Safety measures for students, classroom teachers, and other school staff are paramount to CCPS, the BOE, and the Health Department.
Accumulating evidence from the four Calvert private schools that have had in-person classes since Labor Day, other counties in Maryland that brought students back in early October, and from other states and countries that have had kids in school for months, is that the risk of COVID transmission in school settings is very low. To this point, there have been no outbreaks in Calvert’s private schools.
To best ensure the safety of all those on school buses and in school buildings, CCPS is instituting a host of prevention strategies. Perhaps the most important is the use of a hybrid learning model for each grade level. We now have evidence showing that cohorting students in each grade level into two alternating groups reduces the potential for transmission of COVID four-fold. This is the result of two complementary factors: Most obviously, decreasing the number of students in a classroom by half reduces the number of potential virus carriers by half. In addition, fewer students allows much greater spacing of individuals both in classrooms and on buses. This significantly reduces risks for teachers and bus drivers, as well as students. A lower number of students mean that the first row of seats in each classroom and bus can remain unoccupied, providing a greater cushion between staff and students. Coupled with mask wearing, transmission of virus via respiratory droplets is dramatically lowered. In addition, students will be cohorted during lunchtime and recess to prevent spread of virus between classrooms.
Each cohort will attend in-person classes Monday-Thursday on alternating weeks. This provides an automatic 10-day isolation period for students prior to their return to school building to observe for any symptoms of viral illness. School nurses have been educated to assess students and staff for symptoms that may indicate COVID infection. Anyone suspected of carrying the virus will be excluded from school until she/he is evaluated and tested for COVID by their healthcare provider. Each situation will be managed in consultation between CCPS and the health department nurses and doctors. Contact between school administrators and health department staff takes place 7-days/week since COVID test results can finalize over the weekend or on holidays. Early recognition of positive results provides the opportunity to isolate students prior to return on Monday or after a holiday and allows more timely contact tracing of those in close proximity to infected individuals. Any parent of a child who is a close contact of someone with COVID will be notified to discuss next steps.
CCPS also has been working on improvements in school ventilation and air filtration to further reduce risk of virus exposure. Sanitizing protocols are in place for common touch surfaces. Bus windows will be opened 2-3 inches to maximize ventilation. Each student will have an assigned seat on the bus so contact tracing can be effectively performed. Parents also have the option of transporting their children to school, if they prefer.
And speaking of parents, you all play a vital role in the success of in-school learning. It is imperative that parents keep their children home if they: 1) have symptoms listed below, 2) household members are sick, or 3) have been exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID:
Please keep your child home and notify the school if she/he develops any ONE of the following:
New onset cough- This does not include a cough that is within the range of a typical asthma attack or other chronic respiratory condition that your child may have
New onset shortness of breath
Loss of Taste or Smell
Fever of 100.0 degrees or higher
Please keep your child home and notify the school if she/he develops any TWO of the following:
Muscle or body aches
Congestion or runny nose
Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea- Any combination of these symptoms counts as one potential COVID symptom
If your child becomes ill or if she/he has been exposed to someone infected with COVID, please notify your child’s school and have your child evaluated by her/his primary care provider. In order for a student to return after developing any of these symptoms, COVID testing must be performed. If a parent opts not to have testing performed, at least 10 days have to pass from the start of symptoms before it’s safe for the student to return to school.
If parents send children to school who are sick or are known to have been exposed to someone with COVID, it increases risks to everyone’s health. It also increases the chances that classrooms or entire schools may need to be closed. The same requirements hold for CCPS employees. Many school-related cases of COVID elsewhere in the country have been the result of infected staff and not students.
Parents and school staff should also make sure everyone in their household is vaccinated against influenza. Although the flu vaccine won’t prevent COVID, it will decrease serious illness and prevent further confusion and unnecessary exclusions from school while your doctor is trying to determine if an infection is due to COVID or influenza.
Finally, the Health Department, along with CCPS, is tracking infection data that are both specific to schools and more broadly across the county population. You can see charts on our health department's COVID website https://www.calvertcountycovid19.com/ccps-covid Data is broken down by students, in-classroom teachers, and other CCPS staff. We are also displaying data by region of the county. The dividing line between south and central portions of Calvert is St. Leonard, and north is defined as everything above of Huntingtown. General county data is also broken down by age groups.
There has been lots of discussion about specific metrics to determine if schools should remain open. The CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/indicators.html#thresholds) and some local jurisdictions have come up with charts to guide decisions. To date, none of these schemes have taken into account infections among children and adolescents or COVID cases that directly impact school settings. To this point, Calvert County has been able to keep COVID case rates and positivity percentages relatively low compared to most of the rest of the state and the country. But when we apply our numbers to the different indicators in the CDC chart, Calvert’s metrics swing anywhere from “lowest risk of transmission in schools” to “moderate” or even “higher risk of transmission in schools”. None of the currently published metrics yield consistent guidance regarding school closures. It is also important to note that none of these metrics have been validated as appropriate indicators of risks within school facilities. As a result, it would be disingenuous to propose a set of measures at this time with the expectation that they would properly account for all of the circumstances that factor into decisions needed to determine the point at which schools should be closed.
The reality is that ongoing surveillance of trends within individual schools, portions of the county, and more broadly across our region of the state will factor into decisions regarding closures. Hemming ourselves in by setting predetermined metrics may lead us to overlook concerning changes in specific buildings or regions, or potentially force us to unnecessarily close facilities due to factors that do not directly impact schools. If closures are necessary, there may be little advanced notice. If this is the case, it’s not due to a lack of planning, but due to the unpredictable transmission patterns of COVID.
We want to assure parents and CCPS staff that the Health Department’s primary responsibility is to provide the best advice possible to CCPS Administration and the Calvert County Board of Education with the clear goal of keeping everyone as safe and healthy as possible. Our staff has put in untold hours to work with the School Superintendent, his staff, and BOE members to provide an environment that we feel comfortable letting our children attend. And, in fact, many health department employees have children in our county’s school system.
As we’ve said throughout the pandemic, we have to look out for each other and respect the well-being of everyone in our community. Parents need to do their part by keeping sick children home. School staff need to do the same. Until a safe and effective COVID vaccine is available, we all need to continue wearing masks, avoiding high-risk settings, and socially distance. Here is to a safe and successful step toward getting students back in the classroom with their teachers and friends!