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Worcester County Public Schools officials are determined to keep schools open and students safely learning in-person as covid cases surge.

With the number of positive covid cases surging past the highest records since the start of the pandemic, the possibility of moving to virtual learning looms heavy over school districts across the country.

But at Worcester County Public Schools, officials are continuing to do everything they can to avoid shutdowns and safely keep students in the classrooms.

“WCPS has proven that we can safely have students in person for daily instruction,” said Annette Wallace, the district’s chief operating and academic officer for grades nine through 12, in an email this week. “Our staff and faculty have done an amazing job following our protocols to keep everyone safe.”

When the pandemic came on the scene in early 2020, Worcester’s schools followed suit with most other districts and closed for several months to give way to a full virtual learning program. It did not take long to determine that the all-virtual method had more issues than benefits, though, and officials did everything they could to gradually bring students back to the classrooms.

The effort began with a hybrid option, and moved to returning all students to in-person learning with mask mandates, and social distancing and testing protocols in place. Students who wished to stay with the virtual classroom setting were also given the option for the 2021-22 school year, and a small percentage signed up.

The school system still has the option to return to full remote learning if necessary, but officials are working to avoid that.

“The Responsible Return 2.0 … team remains committed to keeping our classrooms safe and open for in-person learning, as the classroom environment is where students learn best,” said Carrie Sterrs, the district’s coordinator of public relations and special programs, in an email.

Coming off of the holiday break this week, Wallace said officials were ramping up some testing efforts as positive cases remained on the rise across the county. They included increasing access through a partnership with MAKO Medical Labratories to test students at Stephen Decatur, Pocomoke and Snow Hill high schools.

“Any WCPS student is eligible for testing but must sign up using the testing link and arrive to the testing event with a parent or guardian,” Wallace said.

The testing sites were set for activation at the start of the week.

Along with surveillance (regularly scheduled) testing for athletes, and for cohort and schoolwide outbreaks, the district continues to offer a diagnostic testing program through the local health department for students and staff who become symptomatic or learn they are close contacts during the school day.

Lauren Williams, the coordinator of school health services for the Worcester County Board of Education, also said in an email that officials are encouraging the same mitigation strategies as usual to keep the schools safely open. These include not sending students to school when they are sick or identified as close contacts of positive individuals.

“We have seen that symptoms can be very mild, but staying home can help prevent the spread and reduce risk of exposing other students or staff to illness,” Williams said.

She added that hand hygiene, masking, distancing and vaccinations are also important.

“We will continue to partner with our health care partners to offer vaccination clinics for staff and students,” Williams said. “Primary vaccination is available for individuals age 5 and older, and boosters are now approved and recommended for anyone age 12 and up who meets criteria.”

A modified quarantine option was also offered before students and staff left for holiday break that allows students who are identified as close contacts of other students on school property or on a school bus while fully masked to remain in school by participating in rapid antigen testing at the school on days one, three, five and seven.

With that, school system officials are not going along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest change in guidance regarding the amount of time asymptomatic individuals are advised to quarantine after they have tested positive. The guidance slashed the number of days in half, from 10 to five.

“From the onset of the pandemic, WCPS has based our protocols on the guidance provided by [the Maryland State Department of Education] and [the Maryland Department of Health],” Williams said. “At this time, those agencies have not yet adopted the updated CDC guidance. Once they do, we will work in partnership with our local health department to identify how best to apply this guidance in our school setting.”

This story appears in the Jan. 7, 2022 print edition of the OC Today.

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