ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, MD — Hybrid schooling may be closer than previously thought. At a Thursday evening town hall, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman and County Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman announced the framework for what a partial return to school could look like.
The duo understands some parents’ urge to get back in schools as soon as possible. They know that distance learning is hard on everybody, but they notice a heavier toll on younger students.
“The younger they are, the more important it is to get them back,” Kalyanaraman said.
“As the father of a second-grader, I can assure you I know what you’re talking about.”
That’s why Anne Arundel County is examining a phased reopening of school buildings. Under this option, elementary schoolers would adopt a hybrid model sooner than older students.
Kalyanaraman says this idea is rooted in recent findings that explain how coronavirus acts in younger hosts. Children under the age of 10 tend to show less symptoms and spread the disease to fewer people, he says.
Elementary school class sizes are also smaller, Kalyanaraman noted. This means that even if a student caught coronavirus, there would be a decreased opportunity for mass spread.
The health officer believes the virus’s behavior paired with reduced class sizes could make it safer for elementary schoolers to be in classrooms sooner than their older counterparts.
Middle schoolers and high schoolers pose more of a challenge. Whereas elementary school students are usually confined to one set of peers, middle and high school students have intermixed classes.
Middle schoolers usually only take courses with students in their grade, but they change classrooms throughout the day. High schools present a bigger threat, as they can have thousands of attendees and classes with students from multiple grades.
These factors make it easiest to contain elementary school cohorts. Middle school groups are moderately challenging to monitor. High school clusters are the most difficult to manage.
Kalyanaraman hopes to advance a hybrid model, but in baby steps to mitigate community spread in larger schools. Elementary schools may assume the plan first, followed by middle schools and rounded out by high schools.
Neither the health officer nor the county executive gave specific metrics they want to meet before moving forward with this potential hybrid model. The officials said they hope the move will come this fall, however.
“The development of children is really critical,” Kalyanaraman said. “That’s why we’ve highlighted that as one of our key goals.”
When Anne Arundel County Public Schools embraces the hybrid model, students and staff who test positive for coronavirus must report their diagnosis to their school. Administrators will then refer their cases to the Department of Health for contact tracing and counting purposes.
The county says it will tally the number of coronavirus cases that each school has, but it is still working on figuring out how it will share the data. Kalyanaraman says he wants to find a way to protect the privacy of students while also assuring that the numbers are useful.
The health officer wants to denote whether students catch coronavirus in their community or in their classrooms. This would help pinpoint how school reopenings affect viral spread, but he has not yet solved this puzzle.
Many Anne Arundel County private schools, on the other hand, have already reopened. On Aug. 12, Kalyanaraman urged the county’s nonpublic schools to continue with distance learning, though he did not require them to remain online. He asked the schools that plan to reopen to submit their coronavirus safety plans to the Department of Health for approval.
So far, the agency has okayed 42 of these proposals. A full list of the authorized nonpublic schools is available here. Nonpublic schools are educational facilities that are private, church-related or publicly-funded but privately-operated.
Most nonpublic schools needed to tweak their safety plans, according to Kalyanaraman. He said many had to improve their communication and contact tracing systems. Once these issues were squared away, the nonpublic schools caused few problems, the health officer explained.
“They were being responsible,” Kalyanaraman said. “It gave parents and teachers and everybody a sense of comfort.”
Coronavirus Statistics Update
The most recent data clock Anne Arundel County’s positivity rate at 4.1 percent, which is 0.48 percent higher than the statewide clip. The county’s rate has nearly doubled since it bottomed out at 2.29 percent on Aug. 16.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says municipalities should aim to keep their positivity rate below 5 percent. When counties hit this mark, Maryland health leaders say it is likely safe to return to schools for hybrid instruction.
Though Anne Arundel meets the positivity rate recommendation, school officials still started the fall semester with online classes. Anne Arundel County Public Schools previously committed to distance learning for the first two marking periods.
The state has challenged AACPS’s decision over the last few weeks. Hogan recently urged schools to start considering a hybrid model. AACPS responded by reaffirming its immediate commitment to remote learning while also speeding up its plans for eventual hybrid classes.
As of now, school is online until at least the start of the third marking period, which begins on Feb. 2, 2021. Pittman and Kalyanaraman hope to implement their hybrid plan before then, however.
“My goal first and foremost in all of this is to save lives,” Pittman said. “We’re still at-risk and we still have people that are likely to die from this. We want to save as many lives as we can.”
Anne Arundel County has been under the 5 percent benchmark since June 22. The local positivity rate topped out at 28.24 percent on April 16.
While the jurisdiction meets the percent positive guideline, it does not meet the state’s new infections-per-capita marker. State health officials say municipalities should aim for less than five new coronavirus cases-per-day per 100,000 people. When an area hits this case rate goal, the state says it is probably safe to reopen the district’s schools for expanded in-person learning.
Anne Arundel County’s case rate aligns with Maryland’s trends. It hit an initial peak of 13.84 on June 3 before receding to its minimum of 3.53 by June 26.
A second surge in infections spiked Anne Arundel’s case rate to its overall peak of 14.26 on Aug. 2 That wave quelled by Aug. 20, dropping the case rate to 6.93.
A third wave brought the county’s case rate to 11.57 on Sept. 7. Infections are trending downward once more. The case rate now sits at 9.15, which is nearly double the requirement to return to expanded in-person instruction
The county must average less than 28.96 new coronavirus infections-per-day over a rolling week to meet the state’s per-capita suggestion. Anne Arundel County has averaged 63.57 new cases-per-day during the last seven days.
Anne Arundel County has the fifth most coronavirus infections in the state, with 9,302. The virus has killed 229 county residents.
Coronavirus-related hospitalizations have seen an uptick recently. The virus had 22 Anne Arundel County residents in the hospital on Aug. 26. That was the lowest since April 3 when 21 locals were hospitalized. Monday saw 34 hospitalizations.
Fewer than 50 coronavirus patients have been in the hospital at a time since June 14. The county’s recent high of 49 hospitalizations came on July 24. More than 170 people were hospitalized in Anne Arundel County on the pandemic’s April 21 peak.
“We’re all a little bit weary of this pandemic,” Pittman said. “We all just wish it would go away.”
Anne Arundel County is one of four Maryland jurisdictions to remain in Stage 2 of coronavirus recovery. The remaining 20 counties moved into the third and final phase on Sept. 4.
Pittman said Anne Arundel will not make a sweeping transition into Stage 3, as similar moves swelled cases in the past. The county executive did not indicate a date for the next wave of reopenings, but he suggested that it will come in phases, much like his hybrid proposal.
“Businesses have figured how to operate safely,” Pittman said. “People are getting used to wearing masks.”
When Anne Arundel County permits, movie theaters and live entertainment venues can reopen at 50 percent capacity. These businesses will only be able to host 100 people for indoor events or 250 patrons for outdoor gatherings, however. Until then, they remain closed.
Retail stores and houses of worship will operate at a 75 percent capacity, whenever the county moves into phase 3. They are currently capped at half their usual crowd size.
“I want to remind the people of Maryland that moving into stage 3 does not mean that this crisis is behind us,” Hogan said in his Sept. 1 announcement that jurisdictions can further reopen. “We must remain vigilant so we can keep Maryland open for business.”
Marylanders are steadily returning to work as restrictions ease. Since peaking at 10.1 percent in April, the state’s unemployment rate has fallen each month.
Now, 7.6 percent of the labor force is out of a job. In comparison, the unemployment rate was 3.3 percent in February, a month before coronavirus shutdowns began.
While Maryland still has a way to go before it reaches its pre-coronavirus economy, the state is still faring better than most of the country. The national unemployment rate sits at 8.4 percent, which is down from its recent high of 14.7 percent in April.
The overall unemployment stats are updated less frequently at the county level. The latest figures show that 21,277 people, or 6.7 percent of Anne Arundel County workers, were without a job in July. That’s down 3.1 percent from the county’s pandemic-high, which it registered in May.
The number of new unemployment claims are updated each week, offering a more timely overview of county economies. The freshest report comes from the week ending on Sept. 5.
That week, Anne Arundel County tallied 746 first-time unemployment insurance claims. The county’s worst stint came during the week of Aril 4, when it saw 10,573 new claims. In comparison, Anne Arundel counted 146 first-time claims in the week of March 5, which was when Hogan declared a state of emergency in response to the state’s coronavirus outbreak.
Maryland has added 156,000 jobs since recovery efforts began, said Kelly Schulz, the secretary for the state Department of Commerce. She attributes the economic revival to the $175 million in grants and loans that her department sent to thousands of local businesses.
Safety remains a top priority for Schulz, who said her team has met with 13 different industries to develop safe reopening guidelines. That partnership involved leaders from the tourism, manufacturing, retail, dining and attractions sectors, among others.
The group assembled a list of safety recommendations specific to each field. The suggestions include staggering employees’ shifts to minimize potential coronavirus exposure and placing signs and barriers to aid social distancing. These tips are available in Maryland’s Back to Business portal.
“We’ve helped them keep their doors open, pay their bills and keep their employees on their payrolls,” Schulz said of Maryland business owners. “We have stayed strong during this pandemic, and we will remain vigilant. We are, in fact, keeping Maryland open for business.”
Masks are still required in all public places in Maryland where social distancing is not possible. This includes all outdoor and indoor areas like town centers, shops and restaurants.
Hogan reminded residents to continue their coronavirus prevention measures, even around their relatives. People tend to feel safer around their family, but they must still take precautions, Hogan said.
Coronavirus seems to spread quickly at family events. Since the middle of July, 41 percent of coronavirus patients interviewed by contact tracers reported going to family gatherings.
“You think it’s maybe dangerous to go to a restaurant or a bar or some business,” Hogan said. “But in fact, the No. 1 thing reported is family gatherings.”
Have a story idea? Please contact me at [email protected] with any pitches, tips or questions. Follow me on Twitter @JacobBaumgart and on Facebook @JacobBaumgartJournalist to stay up-to-date with the latest Anne Arundel County and Prince George’s County news.
This article originally appeared on the Anne Arundel Patch