BERLIN – Stephen Decatur High School and Worcester Technical High School halted in-person instruction this week after individuals at Decatur tested positive for COVID-19.
On Tuesday, Stephen Decatur Principal Thomas Sites announced that the Berlin high school—Worcester County’s largest—would return to distance learning until after Thanksgiving. The announcement came after the school was notified of its third positive case in 24 hours.
“In light of this new case, it has been decided that, out of an abundance of caution, all classes at Stephen Decatur High School will move to distance learning, beginning tomorrow, November 11, 2020, with students anticipated to return on Monday, November 30, 2020,” a letter to parents reads. “This decision was not made lightly, but the health and safety of our students and staff will always remain the highest priority as these decisions are made.”
The decision to close Worcester Tech—which is attended by students from Decatur as well as students from Snow Hill and Pocomoke high schools—came on Wednesday evening. Single classrooms at Cedar Chapel Special School and Showell Elementary School are also closed as a result of COVID-19 cases.
The wave of closures began with a letter to Decatur parents Monday evening. Sites advised parents that the school was notified that two individuals in the same classroom had tested positive for COVID-19. According to the Maryland Department of Health, that meets the definition of a classroom outbreak. That class was moved to distance learning for the appropriate quarantine period.
“I want to reassure you, however, that because of our commitment to health protocols (including physical distancing, wearing face coverings, and disinfecting surfaces), your child was not exposed while on school property unless you were otherwise notified,” Sites wrote in Monday’s letter. “We have not received any reports of other students outside of this classroom or staff members experiencing illnesses with symptoms resembling those of coronavirus, but as always, we ask that you notify us if your child develops any symptoms.”
Tuesday evening, however, Sites sent parents another letter announcing the third case—outside of the classroom outbreak—and that the entire school would transition to distance learning through Thanksgiving.
On Tuesday Showell Elementary School also advised parents of a positive case in an early childhood classroom.
“In consultation with the Worcester County Health Department, we have decided out of an abundance of caution to transition this class to distance learning through the appropriate quarantine time period,” Principal Diane Shorts wrote in a letter to parents.
In a call to Worcester County Public Schools families Tuesday evening, Superintendent Lou Taylor said that the state’s tightening of COVID-19 restrictions didn’t impact school systems and that in-person learning would continue.
“…we are staying the course and observing all of our protocols as planned,” Taylor said.
He acknowledged Stephen Decatur High’s return to distance learning and said that decision was made out of an abundance of caution.
“We know that news of this transition is likely to heighten anxieties across the school system, but please rest assured that tonight’s decision and all of our protocols we have in place are further evidence that we remain dedicated to keeping our students and staff safe,” he said. “As we continue moving forward, I want to let you know that we have added additional informational resources regarding our protocols to our website, www.worcesterk12.org. And as always, I want to reiterate the importance of your partnership. We need you to continue reinforcing the proper use of face coverings, maintaining physical distancing whenever possible, and of course screening your child for COVID-19 symptoms and keeping them home when they’re sick.”
Taylor also released an open letter to the school system community online to address concerns about transparency.
“We know the past few weeks have shined a harsh spotlight on our school system, and for many of you, that has meant that the trust we have tried so hard to build with you has been tested like it never has been before,” he wrote. “Worcester County Public Schools is under this microscope because we find ourselves in the unique situation of remaining open for in-person learning while school systems all around us are closing due to COVID-19 community metrics. This comparison to those around us has led to speculation that we are not being transparent about coronavirus in our schools.”
He wrote that notification procedures had been developed in consultation with health officials and by using guidance from the CDC.
“The suggestion that we are not carrying the weight of keeping the thousands of students in our care and the nearly 1,200 employees across our county safe during a pandemic is wholeheartedly not true,” Taylor wrote. “However, we know that it is possible to keep our students and staff safe while still providing our families with the option of in-person learning.”
He said students and parents had to do their part as well.
“Stopping the spread of COVID-19 isn’t just the work of the school system; it is the responsibility of every single person in our community,” Taylor wrote. “To keep one another safe, we all must commit to the four preventative practices that keep our schools and community safe: wearing face coverings, maintaining physical distancing whenever possible, checking for symptoms each and every day, and staying home when you’re sick.”
Wednesday’s closure of Worcester Tech came with Principal Tom Zimmer’s announcement that there were two positive cases at Decatur that impacted the technical high school. At Cedar Chapel, officials advised parents that a single classroom was following quarantine procedure after one positive test. A dashboard on the school system’s website lists each school and whether there are any COVID-related closures.