ROCK HALL — Friday will be the last day of in-person instruction in Kent County Public Schools until further notice.
The school system issued a news release Wednesday morning announcing the shift back to distance learning. In-person extracurricular activities and sports also are suspended, according to the release. The change is effective Monday, Dec. 7.
“Kent County COVID-19 positivity rates continue to rise and are currently aligned with statewide trends,” the KCPS release states. “According to statewide metric guidelines, the Kent County School System is now at high risk for COVID-19 transmission.”
Students through eighth grade have been participating in a hybrid instruction model for a little over a month now, alternating in-person classroom days with online learning. The high school has remained fully remote throughout the fall, with the exception of Career and Technology Education programming and those students needing additional support.
For now, Kent County’s private schools — Kent School, Radcliffe Creek School, Chestertown Christian Academy and Friendship Montessori School — all plan to remain open with in-person instruction. All are keeping an eye on the county’s COVID-19 numbers.
As of Wednesday, Kent County showed a total of 467 cases and 23 confirmed COVID-19-related deaths. That is an increase of 51 cases since Wednesday, Nov. 25. and of 29 cases since Sunday.
The KCPS website maintains a dashboard showing reporting confirmed positive cases within the school community, though it does not specify if they are students or staff.
On Wednesday morning, the dashboard showed three cases at the central office in Rock Hall, one reported Nov. 6 and two on Nov. 9; three at Kent County High School, one on Nov. 19 and two on Nov. 30; three at Kent County Middle School, two on Sept. 21 and one on Nov. 19; and one at Galena Elementary School on Dec. 1.
The state issued metrics for school systems to use in determining whether to remain open or closed. The KCPS release announcing the return to virtual learning states that the county’s metrics warranted a conversation with Kent County Health Officer William Webb regarding in-person instruction.
The baseline of those metrics starts with a county’s testing positivity rate. If that rate is less than or equal to 5%, schools are OK for some form of in-person instruction.
Then if the new case rate is less than or equal to five per 100,000 people, schools can expand in-person programming. As that new case rate approaches but remains less than 15 per 100,000 people, in-person programming should be limited.
If the initial testing positivity rate is greater than 5% but the new case rate remains less than or equal to five per 100,000 people, schools can continue with hybrid instruction and limited in-person programming. If that new case rate approaches 15 per 100,000 people, schools must limit in-person programming or close and revert to distance learning.
KCPS is the last school system on the Eastern Shore to close this fall due to COVID numbers. Many others announced closures in mid-November, with all three lower Shore systems sticking with virtual learning through winter break. While previously closed, Dorchester County Public Schools appears to be the first, though, to welcome some students back into classrooms, according to Facebook posts earlier this week.
While Kent County’s positivity rate hit a low on Nov. 27 of 2.58%, that number has been trending up. As of Dec. 1, it had climbed to 6.8%. Also, on Dec. 1 the state reported that the number of new cases rate was up to 38.98 per 100,000 people.
“We’re making the right decision,” Couch said in a phone interview Wednesday morning after pulling up the latest available numbers.
Couch said teachers will have the choice during the closure to work from home or remain in their classrooms providing online instruction. At the central office, the staff will report two days a week and telecommute the other three.
The cafeteria staff will continue to work five days a week. Student meals will continue to be available during the closure, with Couch saying her hope is to ramp up the number of distribution sites.
“We’d like to identify some more sites for the meals,” she said. “We’ve got a few days to organize that.”
Administrators at the county’s private schools also are watching the health metrics. In emails Wednesday, they wrote about how they are prepared to go virtual if necessary, but are currently remaining in-person.
“Thankfully, the structure of our program, our physical plant, and our extended child care licensure allow us to have more of a capacity to stay open compared to other schools for some students. Our families have been prepped and informed for the possibility of going virtual so that students are not unexpectedly thrown into chaos,” wrote Kim Nistler of Radcliffe Creek School.
Tricia Cammerzell wrote that Kent School continues to be in contact with the health department. She said the health department supports Kent School’s plans to remain in-person at this time.
“They are confident that the mitigation strategies we have in place are effective,” Cammerzell wrote. “If at some point in the coming days or weeks, they advise us to shift to remote instruction, which we call Connected Learning, we are fully prepared to do so.”
CCA remains in person, but does take into consideration the actions of the public school system when making decisions. The school has not been holding any interscholastic student sports.
Friendship Montessori School in Worton, which has students as young as 2 years old, remains in person.
Director Holli Mathison said in a statement that if the school has to close, teaching will not switch to virtual as so much of their instruction focuses on “social interactions, physical coordination, fostering curiosity and concentration and a love of learning, and developing skills and independence.”
“We tried it last spring,” she said of virtual learning, “but truly, if school has to close, it is best for the teachers to stay home until it is safe to return. If the closing happens in January or later, we hope to have Toolkits ready for each student to enjoy at home.”
In a phone interview Wednesday morning, Kent County Board of Education President Joe Goetz said Couch has kept board members up to speed on her collaborations with the health department, the Maryland State Department of Education and other school systems.
Goetz’ wife is a teacher and their son attends Kent County High School.
He said while he wishes the school system was in place where students and staff could get back to normal programming, he recognizes the situation does not allow for that. He said the metrics are telling them the return to virtual learning is the right action to take at this moment as the metrics continue to climb.
“It’s not what we want, but we have to show the most caution,” Goetz said. “As soon as it breaks and as soon as we start to see things change, we’re going to do what we’ve always done: adjust accordingly.”
Couch said she will be speaking with Webb every week. She said they will be watching to see the numbers reverse course in a trend, not just a one-day drop.
“The current data and trending will drive all decisions,” Couch said in the news release. “The health and safety of our staff and students is of upmost importance and Kent County COVID-19 statistics must align with statewide metric guidelines before a return to hybrid instruction will be approved.”
Goetz said the decision to close schools is not being taken lightly.
“We’ve got kids that need all the supports,” he said. “And we also just have to be very mindful and very careful of their health.”