As schools in St. Mary’s prepare to reopen, parents can expect some notice when a student or staff member at their child’s school tests positive for COVID-19, although no public dashboard will be counting overall cases within the school system.

If a student or employee tests positive for COVID-19 after in-person instruction begins, contact tracers will determine who is at risk of contracting the virus, likely those who have been within 6 feet of the positive person for over 15 minutes, or who have not worn a mask near them, St. Mary’s public schools’ Superintendent Scott Smith said in an interview Tuesday at the school system’s headquarters in Leonardtown.

Smith said alongside Dr. Meena Brewster, St. Mary’s health officer, that contact tracers will notify those who are at risk from that individual and strongly encourage getting tested four days after their last exposure, or within 48 hours of showing symptoms, and encourage self-isolation.

The superintendent said a notice will be sent to the school’s parents within 24 hours of a positive case being identified and contact tracing. Similar procedures will be in place if somebody refuses to be tested but shows symptoms and has been exposed.

“We’re going to watch and inform the parent community” using the templated letters, Smith said.

“Otherwise, it creates panic,” Brewster said. “We don’t operate off rumors, we operate off science.”

The notice letter and contact tracing process would not identify the student by name.

Sara Dixon, PTA board member at Benjamin Banneker Elementary, was concerned they would not inform parents at all. However, she said the parents should be told if their child is in the same classroom as a person who tested positive, even if the parent’s child does not qualify as a close contact.

“I don’t think that’s good enough,” she said about the notification plan, adding it sounds reactive and not proactive.

Karin Bailey, chair of the school board and a parent of a St. Mary’s public school student, did not have a problem with the parent notification process, although the public outside a school community would not know if a student tested positive for the virus. She said she would not need to know the case numbers of a school her children did not attend.

She compared it to a place of business, and how the public is not aware of case numbers for individual establishments.

“I would expect the same courtesy,” Bailey said.

When the high school athletes begin competing against other schools, Bailey said they would have to rely on contact tracing. Sports practices start up in the county next week.

When asked if the system of reporting COVID-19 cases within schools was sufficient, Commissioner John O’Connor (R) said since it was vetted through the health department, it’s probably the best way to go. “I’m sure people want more information,” he said, but “the health department has done an outstanding job so far,” and he’s confident they considered risks and students’ rights.

If a school employee tests positive for the virus, the health department will be made aware, contact tracing will be done and the employee will be placed on leave through the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, Smith said.

Cases in a school may not necessarily mean the virus is spreading within the school building, Brewster said, as students and school employees may have exposure in the community.

“Coming back to any situation is not risk-free,” she said. “What we’re trying to do here is mitigate that risk.”

School officials modified reopening plans, again, this week, saying that some special education students could return Sept. 21, followed by young students in Head Start and pre-kindergarten, then students in transitioning grades would return in mid-October while the rest of the student population would have the option to return to school starting Nov. 2.

Brewster said the decision to allow students to return to the building was based on “a whole host of factors.”

“It’s not easy,” she said about students returning. “The alternative is not easy either.”

Parents were asked to choose whether their student will participate in a hybrid model for two days of in-person instruction, or to stick to 100% virtual learning. The student is expected to stick with the decision for an entire quarter marking period. However, if a student exits in-person instruction due to quarantining or isolation, they can return to the classroom once it is over.

Although there is no exact number of cases which will cause schools to close or slow down the reopening process, school and health officials will analyze county data for a number of red flags, including a positivity rate above 5% and a daily rate of over 15 new cases per 100,000 residents, Brewster said, but those are not the only factors that total into the decision.

“We also have to look at the capacity of public health to respond,” she added.

“We will monitor, and we will modify,” Smith said.

On Tuesday, St. Mary’s reported a seven-day average positivity rate of 4.2% and 4.6 new cases per 100,000 residents.

A total of 1,228 residents have tested positive since the start of the pandemic, 1,080 have been released from their isolation period and 57 St. Mary’s residents have died in any jurisdiction from COVID-19. Of those deaths, 43 occurred within the county lines. Out of non-St. Mary’s residents, 27 COVID-19-related deaths have occurred in the county, primarily in long-term care facilities.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland, which recently made its coronavirus numbers public, reported this week having 19 cumulative cases. Eight of those patients were determined to be recovered, and 32 others are in quarantine awaiting symptoms or test results.

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