Empty desks. High absences. A packed health room. The cause, a virus. Ever since HCPSS schools opened on August 30th, students, staff, and parents have been adjusting and making themselves aware of the new COVID-19 regulations.
With mask mandates, maximization of airflow throughout buildings, installation of HEPA filters, and the offer of outdoor dining, “HCPSS is doing all it can to ensure the safety of all students and staff,” said Dr. Chao Wu, chair of Howard County’s Board of Education in an interview over email.
However, some students are not aware of what is being done to protect them. “I don’t know [Howard County COVID procedures],” said Lourdes Long, a junior at Atholton. “For the most part, I feel pretty safe.”
Howard County made the decision to re-open schools after The Maryland Board of Education required all public school districts in Maryland to open for 180 days during the fall of this year.
“It is my belief that opening up was the right decision,” said Mr. Motley, Principal at Atholton. “I think everyone was looking forward to returning to something vaguely familiar to normal and now that we have done so, many do not want to return to virtual learning.”
Howard County schools are unable to shut down or return to distance learning unless required by the Maryland Board of Education or the Howard County Health Department.
“It is unlikely that any of those [things] are going to happen,” said Vice Chair of the Board of Education, Jennifer Mallo in an online interview.
According to the Board of Education, if a student–or staff member–were to contract the virus, they must quarantine themselves and are not permitted to attend school until they have been medically cleared. However, this regulation only applies to unvaccinated students and staff.
“Vaccinated students [who have been exposed/have COVID-19] do not have to be quarantined,” said Dr. Wu. They just need to “monitor their symptoms.”
At the moment, Howard Country is not requiring student vaccinations nor are they in a position to do so; vaccines have to be mandated by the State of Maryland. However, once the winter sport season begins, all athletes must be fully vaccinated or submit to weekly testing in order to play. Students who are eligible to get vaccinated, are highly encouraged to do so. Howard County Staff are required to get vaccinated or to test for COVID-19 weekly.
“If you can get vaccinated, get vaccinated, please,” said Ms. Mallo.
To prioritize staff and student health, parents and students are encouraged to do health check ups and evaluate themselves for any COVID-19 symptoms. According to the Howard County Public Schools’ COVID-19 dashboard, students should be on the lookout for, “fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, sore throat, cough, difficulty breathing, diarrhea or vomiting, new onset of severe headache (especially with fever), or, new loss of taste or smell.”
There has been a lot of confidentiality surrounding student and staff COVID-19 cases. This is because, “Covid cases are considered medically confidential, governed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA),” said Dr. Wu.
If a student or staff member contracts COVID-19, contact tracing is in place to alert those exposed. According to HCPSS a close contact is defined as a person who was, “within 6 feet of an infected person (laboratory-confirmed or a clinically compatible illness) for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.”
If a student at Atholton tested positive for COVID-19, Mr. Motley said, “the information should be relayed to our School Nurse, Ms. Sandra Eggerl.” From there contact tracing will commence via use of seating charts.
“Atholton has been very fortunate with a limited number of cases,” said Mr. Motley. However, as of October 25, Atholton has 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19. It currently has the second highest number of cases in HCPSS high schools as demonstrated by the graph below.
“I believe it is hard to predict what will happen. All we can do [is] to ask students and staff to have the vaccine shots when available, continue to take precautions, for example, wearing a mask in buildings,” said Dr. Wu. “By looking at the covid cases in HCPSS, majority cases are believed community spread. We ask our community to work together with HCPSS to win this battle against COVID-19.”