A George Washington Carver Elementary staffer who attended a social event earlier this month outside St. Mary’s County tested positive for the coronavirus, caused an outbreak at the school and caused the building to close a week before special education students were scheduled to start returning to the building.
A press release noted employees from multiple sites tested positive as well and attended the same out-of-county event, possibly during Labor Day weekend. The outbreak “put a pause” on student return plans, according to an abbreviated town hall hosted by Superintendent Scott Smith Wednesday afternoon.
A revised student return plan was sent to school staff on Tuesday announcing new dates for children to enter the classrooms. It would have started as early as Sept. 21, but Smith announced those plans are put on hold for now.
The Sept. 16 town hall was meant to address phase one of the return plan. Smith started the meeting noting the good weather that happened Labor Day weekend and how people took advantage.
“COVID-19 wasn’t gone. It still exists,” he said.
He added that the virus takes two to 14 days to manifest itself, meaning positive results or symptoms would appear around this time.
Smith said they noticed staff tested positive on Monday morning, Sept. 14. Contact tracing protocols were followed and the number of staff considered to be in close contact were in the double digits.
“We find ourselves with multiple confirmed cases,” he said.
A press release from the school system states a Carver staff member participated in a “non-school related social event” outside of the county. Contact tracing revealed several employees at multiple sites attended the event and others considered close contacts were placed under quarantine and sent for testing.
Carver Elementary will be closed to teachers and other staff through Sept. 18 and no meals will be distributed during that time.
“We are not having [all] students return to in-person instruction in the first marking period,” which goes through October, he said at the virtual town hall.
A letter sent to parents Wednesday said, “At the upcoming board of education meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 23, we will communicate revised dates for returning special populations of students to in-person learning in October before all students return for the second marking period, Monday, Nov. 2.”
Smith said he would answer questions and go into more detail about what had been planned for this week’s town hall, including information about transportation and cleaning schools, at next week’s school board meeting.
The Sept. 15 letter to staff announced special education students, including those in SAIL and COMPASS, would return to the classroom with a regular schedule Sept. 21. Students who are in Head Start and pre-kindergarten would return Sept. 28 for a regular schedule. However, those students would have only half-day schedules, or a.m. and p.m. sessions, instead of having school all day. It’s unclear if those dates still hold true.
Smith said in an interview on Tuesday the CDC advised young students to not wear masks during nap time. He added when he visited a Head Start site, staff struggled with spacing out students for naps.
Phase two of the revised plan would have returned students in kindergarten, first, sixth, ninth and twelfth grades in mid-October to a hybrid mode of instruction. Students would learn in-person instruction two days a week and online for three days a week.
Nov. 2 would have been the date for the final phase when the rest of students can return to the classroom for hybrid instruction, if they chose. When asked, Smith said Wednesday that date remains the same.
The latest announcement is the third time the plan to return students has changed. The school system initially announced they would monitor data in September, then phase into in-person instruction in October or November, or after the first quarter.
When those dates were pushed up by a few weeks, it led to negative feedback by some parents and teachers both on social media and in person during a school board meeting. Some called it rushed and irresponsible.
Smith said on Tuesday he was accused of making the switch to gain $10 million in grants, something the state superintendent offered to all school systems who chose to bring students back for in-person instruction. Smith added no guidelines on that have been released, but the system would apply for any grants made available to them.
A survey was made available to parents to pick whether they would send their child to in-person classes or not. Not every survey states when the results were due, but Smith said in an interview he expected answers two weeks prior of the student’s return date. He said they received 12,000 responses and 75% voted they would return their children to in-person classes if given the option.
“For the 25% who wanted us to remain virtual, there you go,” Smith said on Wednesday.
Sara Dixon, PTA board member at Benjamin Banneker Elementary, said she does not see a safe avenue to return students at all. But had some relief when she learned the return dates were pushed back.
“It just seemed crazy to me and political. I’m glad they realized they need to slow down and have a plan first,” she said.
Liz Purcell Leskinen, Uniserv Director for Maryland’s Education association, said she was grateful Smith is putting staff first. She added she is sorry people are ill but relieved the return plans were put on pause.
Smith said athletics, scheduled to start next Monday, Sept. 21, are moving forward as planned.