(Jan. 8, 2021) Worcester County public and private schools remained in distance learning mode this week, as school officials from both sectors agreed to abide by the Worcester County Health Department’s request.

Health department officials told Ocean City Today that the recommendation for schools to conduct classes virtually was based on metrics provided by the state.

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The Worcester County Health Department strongly recommended all Worcester County schools transition to, or remain in, distance learning after the holiday break based on state guidelines that encourage limited or no in-person programs when a county positivity rate is above 5 percent and has a new case rate greater than 15 per 100,000. On Sunday, Worcester County’s positivity rate was 16.22 percent with a new case rate of 56.57 per 100,000 population.

State guidelines encourage limited or no in-person programs when a county positivity rate is above 5 percent and has a new case rate greater than 15 per 100,000, officials explained.

As of Saturday, when Worcester Preparatory School and Worcester County Public Schools notified families of the change in instruction, Worcester County had a positivity rate of 14.47 percent while the statewide positivity rate was 9.15 percent.

“Both metrics were on the rise last weekend, and as of [Sunday], Worcester County’s positivity rate was 16.22 percent with a new case rate of 56.57 per 100,000 population, far above the state’s guidelines to return to in-person learning,” a statement from the health department read.

“Worcester Prep was contacted by the Worcester County Health Department alerting us that the metrics on the Eastern Shore have increased significantly,” said Dr. John McDonald, head of school.  “While we were planning a return to in-person instruction on Jan. 4, the health department asked that we consider a transition to virtual learning for a period of one week.”

McDonald advised families on Saturday that the private school on South Main Street in Berlin would transition to virtual instruction this week for the first time this academic year.

“Our intention is to return to in-person instruction on our campus on Monday, Jan. 11,” McDonald said.

Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic School on Racetrack Road in Berlin made the decision to switch to virtual instruction for Jan. 4-8 prior to the start of winter break, following the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington’s direction.

“This week we are in session virtually as directed by Dr. Lou DeAngelo, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Wilmington, in a letter to our families from December 10, 2020,” said Principal Kathleen Manns.

The health department did contact the school’s nurse to confirm that classes were conducted virtually this week.

Although Superintendent of Worcester County Public Schools Lou Taylor announced on Dec. 29 that some students would return to campuses on Monday, he changed plans last weekend after receiving an email from the health department late last week that strongly recommended that students remain in distance learning after the holiday break.

“We understand that this decision creates challenges for many of our families,” Taylor wrote on Saturday night. “Please know that decisions like this are not taken lightly. But there is something you can do. In order for us to successfully reopen for in-person instruction, we implore all of our students, staff and their families to be safe in the community. Wear your masks, maintain a safe physical distance at all times, be sure to stay home when sick and see a medical provider if you experience any symptoms of covid-19.”

Taylor’s latest announcement came after Gary McCabe Sr., UniServ director of the Worcester County Teachers Association and the Worcester County Education Support Personnel Association, sent a letter to him on Saturday morning after the associations met on Dec. 31 to discuss their concerns about bringing students back to the schools as the local covid-19 positivity rates rise.

“Your decision to disregard the state guidelines and return to in-person instruction is politically untenable for us,” McCabe wrote. “It does not reflect the sentiment of our members. It follows neither the letter not the spirit of the guidelines. It does not comport with your fellow superintendents, who have similar and high infections rates in their [counties]. Your decision gives us no solid political ground upon which to support your decision.

“If you change course now, you will have our full backing and we will dedicate all our resources to supporting you,” McCabe continued. “We will immediately engage with all political leaders and the community to support you. We will work arduously to carry our message to parents. If, however, you continue down the path you are on, you must understand that you will be doing so without the support of WCTA and WCESPA.”

McCabe told Ocean City Today on Tuesday that the associations appreciate Taylor’s decision to remain in distance learning this week and look forward to working with him in the future.

Taylor said he has spoken with the Worcester County Board of Education members.

“They have basically supported the decision that was made that we remain in distance learning,” he said.

Taylor also said he has received calls and emails on both sides of the debate.

A change.org petition called “Open Worcester County Schools!” was started on Monday calling on the Worcester County Board of Education and Taylor in support of in-person learning.

Dr. Brian DelliGatti, an emergency room physician at Atlantic General Hospital, along with others, created a private Facebook group called “Coastal Community Collaborative – Return to Learn” consisting of frontline healthcare professionals battling covid-19 in Worcester County and surrounding areas, mental health providers, educators, parents and community leaders, “all who recognize the invaluable benefits of in-person learning for the children in our community.” The group has more than 480 members.

DelliGatti also sent a letter to McCabe in response to his letter to Taylor, saying he was part of a group of more than 30 local medical professionals, including emergency physicians, pediatricians, mental health professionals, social workers, and educators, who support “the safe return of students and staff to in-person learning.”

“Our collaborative’s goal is to involve all of the key stakeholders in the process of developing a responsible and safe resumption of in-person learning, recognizing the significant limitations virtual learning presents, resulting in severely impaired educational attainment, loss of vital social support structure for children suffering with food insecurity, neglectful and abusive home environments, and the exacerbation of pre-existing socioeconomic disparities within our public school system,” he wrote.

DelliGatti added that the group has been in communication with Taylor, Dr. Annette Wallace and Coordinator of School Health Services Lauren Williams.

“Our group contends that the tremendously impactful and tangible detrimental effects that the prolonged and ongoing school closures have perpetuated are persisting unjustifiably and are unsupported in the medical literature,” he wrote. “These views are not unique to this coalition and are supported by our national health experts including Dr. Robert Redfield and Dr. Anthony Fauci. There is a compelling body of medical literature demonstrating reassuringly low rates of student and staff transmission of COVID-19 that is additionally bolstered by data indicating that educators face no greater risk than other comparatively low-risk front-line workers. I would be happy to share this information with your organization in more detail at your convenience.”

Taylor is expected to update families about the “Responsible Return” by Friday after assessing all health and safety information.

“I am going to work with our parochial school leadership. We are scheduled to speak sometime this week, so that we can all try to be consistent,” Taylor said on Monday. “I am going to meet with our teachers association leadership this week to try to work out some things that would allow for us to return to in-person learning.”

He added that his decision will reflect what is best for the most amount of people.

“I feel strongly that when we do make a decision to come back whatever the metrics are, whatever the situation may be that we have done a tremendous amount of work as a school system to prepare our teachers and our employees to lead safe environments, so that our kids can get back to learning,” Taylor said.

He strongly advocates for students to return to in-person instruction as quickly and as safely as possible.

As of Jan. 13, some of the students will have been out of schools for 10 months, he said.

“That’s not only damaging to the instructional piece of their lives, but it’s also damaging to their social and emotional well-being,” Taylor added. “I want them back in our schools, but the number one priority is the safety and the health of all who work and attend our schools.”

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