New Calvert school board member Pat Nutter last week cast the deciding vote on whether to bring back students in grades 3 to 5 to school buildings in early December. He voted to wait another week.
Meanwhile, St. Mary’s public schools continued its pause on in-person instruction after some students had returned Nov. 2.
The Calvert school board met Nov. 12 and heard an update about COVID-19 from Dr. Larry Polsky, the county’s health officer. Although Polsky was OK with bringing more students back on Dec. 7, Nutter decided to wait a week since the board was also scheduled to meet on Nov. 19.
Calvert began bringing back some of its prekindergarten, first- and second-grade students on Nov. 9. The county’s COVID-19 data has risen but not as much as St. Mary’s and Charles counties, according to health officials.
Polsky noted that on Nov. 12, Calvert had a coronavirus test positivity rate of 4.62% compared to the state average of 5.7%. In addition, the number of cases the previous week had increased from 62 to 93.
“Outbreaks within schools happen very infrequently,” Polsky said. He said that metrics from the state are inconsistent and often give contradicting guidance for schools. “In-school transmission [of the coronavirus] shows a very, very limited potential,” the health officer said.
“If people are going to congregate anywhere, in school buildings are about the safest place we can be,” he said, adding that he would not advocate for 24 students in a classroom. He also noted that HEPA air filters need to be in use. “We have months of evidence that says within schools we don’t see major transmission rates,” he said.
“It’s not possible to quantify a tipping point for school openings based on case rates and percent positivity,” he said. “It’s not possible to quantify the potential harm done to students’ academic well-being and social development by restricting in-class learning.”
School board chair Inez Claggett asked Polsky to define a coronavirus outbreak. He said that the state health and education departments define it as two cases within a classroom. An outbreak in a school exists when three different classrooms in a school have outbreaks within 14 days.
Claggett asked Polsky what the state says about how to handle such outbreaks. He said the state is silent about it, adding that there is “a struggle between what the state should dictate and what a local school district should have the latitude to do.”
Claggett — who voted against bringing students back on Nov. 9 and on Dec. 7 — cited the example of Germany. “They shut down their establishments and their economy to allow their children to go to school,” she said. “I applaud them for making education a priority.”
Polsky said he agreed. Board member Dawn Balinski noted that Germany also subsidized its businesses.
Polsky said that a recent order by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) decreasing the capacity of restaurants from 75% to 50% “has no practical impact in Calvert.”
Contract tracing has had limited success in Calvert, he said. “We ask people about high-risk situations. About half of the people we speak to refuse to answer these questions. In others, we suspect they withhold information.”
Noting that Polsky said schools don’t generally incubate and transmit viruses, board member Pamela Cousins said she foresees an “administrative nightmare” as the virus spreads in the community.
“What we’re hoping to do is allow the majority of students whose parents want them to return to the classroom to have that opportunity,” Polsky said. “Our job, in conjunction with the school district, is to make sure it’s done as safely as possible.”
Balinski motioned that the school district begin bringing back students in grades 3 to 5 on Dec. 7. Outgoing school board member Tracy H. McGuire seconded it. Pat Nutter voted no, along with Claggett and Cousins.
“I really want this,” Balinski said. “I’m getting emails from staff who are concerned but also from parents who said this [return] has changed their child’s life. I have family in Ohio who have schools open since September in hybrid. It’s working and their children are developing normally.”
Nutter said he didn’t feel as good about opening for additional students on Dec. 7 as he did about the Nov. 9 return. “I’m having a hard time with this,” he said.
“Many of our neighbors are far worse,” Superintendent Daniel D. Curry said. “We will hit pause if necessary.”
After Balinski’s motion failed, Nutter made a motion to reconsider the vote during the board’s 7 p.m. meeting on Thursday, Nov. 19. It passed 4-1 with Cousins the lone dissenter.
St. Mary’s pauses its return
In other news, St. Mary’s schools paused their return for three weeks — from Nov. 16 to Dec. 4 — in an announcement that St. Mary’s public schools’ Superintendent Scott Smith sent to parents on Friday, Nov. 13.
St. Mary’s began bringing its prekindergarten through second-graders back on Nov. 2, but paused that return due to rising COVID-19 data on Sunday, Nov. 9.
Smith noted that as of Friday morning, Nov. 13, St. Mary’s had a virus test positivity rate of 7% and a new case rate of 13 per 100,000. Smith noted that the state rate per 100,000 was 22.
“Clearly, we are not in a spike; it is a surge,” he said.
For school-related COVID-19 data for Calvert, go to www.calvertcountycovid19.com/ccps-covid and for St. Mary’s, go to sites.google.com/smcps.org/smcps-recovery-planning/health-and-safety/covid-data.