Schools still in-person, but COVID rates could change that

H.H. Garnet Elementary School students are wearing face masks and are seated at desks that have been spaced out for social distancing. Kent County Public Schools is continuing with hybrid instruction as COVID-19 numbers here remain below the state threshhold for returning to remote instruction.

ROCK HALL — Five of the nine school systems on the Eastern Shore have gone back to remote learning, but Kent County is not one of them.

The shift back to virtual learning is based on coronavirus metrics: a county’s positivity rate and the case rate per 100,000 people. The numbers have sent students in Cecil, Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Somerset and Worcester counties back home for school.

“According to the Daily Surveillance Summary for Queen Anne’s County, our metrics have continued to increase in the past week. We have collaborated with our local health officials and based on the metrics, all schools will move to virtual learning effective, November 18th,” the Queen Anne’s County Board of Education posted on Facebook Monday, Nov. 16. “Our apologies for any inconvenience, but the health and safety of all students and staff is of paramount importance.”

According to state guidance for school systems, if a county’s positivity rate goes above 5% and the case rate is more than 15 per 100,000 schools are to go to limited or no in-person programming.

Kent County remains below the thresholds. As of Monday, Nov. 16, Kent County’s positivity rate was trending down at 2.8%. The statewide rate was climbing up at 6.85%.

“I just spoke with our health department and at this point we’re very low, but that could all change on a dime,” said Kent County Superintendent of Schools Karen Couch Tuesday morning, Nov. 17.

Kent County Health Officer William Webb, in a separate interview, agreed with Couch.

“Our concern is to keep the students safe and to keep the teachers safe,” Webb said. “We’ve been fairly good here, but that can change at a moment’s notice.”

KCPS has been moving toward implementation a hybrid instruction model throughout the fall, with students dividing their instruction between days in the classroom and remote learning.

While hybrid instruction is currently occurring for most students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, Couch sent out a letter to the school community, informing families that KCPS may have to return to remote learning if public health metrics rise.

“If local public health metrics continue to rise, KCPS may be forced to suspend hybrid instruction and return to remote learning for students and staff. We are working closely with the Kent County Health Department and monitoring the situation daily,” the letter states.

Queen Anne’s and Talbot administrators gave families a couple of days notice that they would be returning to remote education, a move Couch said she would favor if KCPS were required to suspend hybrid instruction.

“I would be in favor of giving families notice before we would move to remote, but I think it all depends upon the circumstances,” she said.

Webb said he also is working with private schools in Kent County.

The Gunston School in Centreville has a number of students from Kent County attending. It suspended in-person classes this week due to the positivity rate in Queen Anne’s County.

“Our need to temporarily suspend campus activities is related to the wider public health crisis, not as a result of any health issues within our school community,” said Head of School John Lewis in a statement Nov. 17.

Lewis expects to return to in-person instruction, but the “timeline depends on many factors outside of our control: infection rates, health system capacity, and the ability of citizens to heed public health guidelines.”

“The entire Gunston community has worked incredibly hard this year to keep our campus open and maintain the highest degree of community safety,” Lewis said.

On Friday, Nov.13, KCPS launched a dashboard on its website showing confirmed positive COVID-19 cases within the school system. Privacy laws limit what information can be publicly provided. The dashboard lists the building, the number of cases and the dates reported.

It currently shows two confirmed cases at Kent County Middle School in Chestertown dated Sept. 21. There have been three cases reported at the central office in Rock Hall: one on Nov. 6 and two on Nov. 9.

Couch said the central office closed Nov. 13 for cleaning. She said it is currently open, with some staff having gone to get tested and currently quarantining.

She said those currently working in the central office were not considered in close contact with those who tested positive for COVID-19.

Questions remain over what will happen with student athletics that are set to start next month.

“Everybody around us is going to remote so I don’t know how that is going to impact our ability to go into sports Dec. 7,” Couch said.

On Sunday, Nov. 15, Kent County High School Athletic Director Kevin Taylor said sports was still set to start, but that could change.

The school system and the health department are reminding everyone to continue following public health guidelines and mandates such as wearing masks, frequent hand-washing, social distancing and getting flu shots.

“The well-being of staff and students is of utmost importance and outside influences directly impact our school community. If everyone does their part, we will succeed at keeping our community safe,” the KCPS letter to the school community states.

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