It’s beneficial to reflect back in time to see how far we have come. One year ago this week, I was standing on the sidelines of a soccer tournament in northern Delaware when parents received the automated call from the school system informing virtual learning was to take place through the end of the year due to spiking COVID-19 numbers. The facial expressions of disappointment and frustration of another setback told the story. On Nov. 18, 2020, the positivity rate in Worcester County was 6.82%, as compared to 3.4% on Nov. 17 of this year. As for the seven-day moving average case rate per 100,000, the mark was 24.32 on Nov. 17, 2020 compared to 15.03 this Nov. 17.
While cautiously watching the metrics, these days the talk is of ever-increasing vaccination rates, young kids now able to get their shots, some people being super vaccinated (fully vaccinated with a booster), relaxing quarantine rules in schools so long as masks are being worn and testing is conducted, half days to give teachers and students a mental health break and avoiding virtual learning at all costs.
The pandemic and associated lifestyle changes, like masks, will continue to be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future, but this much is known — thankfully progress is being made on most fronts.
There were several calls home this week from the Worcester County Board of Education. The first one involved an announcement of a change in quarantine protocols for students who have been deemed a close contact of another positive student. Nearly all the close contacts in schools occur either on transportation to and from school or during lunch when masks are not worn. The latter seems to be not weighed heavily any longer when it comes to contact tracing.
This week’s change involves close contact students now being able to stay in school so long as they do not have any symptoms, wear masks, do not participate in any sports or afterschool offerings and test negative in school four times over the course of a week. What’s interesting here is it’s clear Maryland health officials are loosening the guidance for schools. It’s welcomed and a sign of progression, but it’s also clear masking is a huge part of these changes. Each protocol update comes with the asterisk that masks must be worn.
It was a point brought up several times this week during the Maryland State Board of Education’s public listening session on masks. The state board has vowed to revisit masking at its meeting next month. At the beginning of this week’s session, Board Chairman Clarence Crawford said no decision would be made after listening to the 20 citizen speakers, which were evenly divided on the mask issue. Much of the same jargon from both sides was heard. Passion continues to be found on the masking issue as on the vaccination front, especially for those 5-11 years of age.
Though Crawford and the board did not offer insights as to their leaning, Crawford did offer at the end of all the testimony the board did not get a “silver bullet” answer. The board will reconvene next month, but it makes little sense at this time to remove masking if the goal is in-person learning. It’s not right or fair, but the protocols currently governing close contact quarantine are only being loosened if masks are worn. Masking is more important than vaccination when it comes to schools. It’s a fundamentally wrong approach, but it’s not reasonable to support lifting the mask requirement until the protocols are adjusted to allow vaccination to trump the mask. There are no indications that will happen anytime soon. Masks are the crutch of support to allow these small modifications to be enacted. Soon the time will come to be bolder on masking. Vaccination rates should be a major part of these conversations.
The grand opening of the new Stephen Decatur Middle School in the fall of 1997 was one of my first assignments as a reporter. I remember a county commissioner at the time giving me a quote about the new school and then telling me later off the record the county “really screwed this one up.” He was referring to the fact the school was not big enough to meet current demands.
Citing funding concerns limiting the size of the school infrastructure, most officials involved in the project knew at the time the school was way too small based on current enrollment and near future projections. Soon after opening, classroom trailers were needed as growth continued in the north end. Once the $11 million addition, which broke ground this week, is completed, there will be 25,000 square feet of new space, eliminating the need for the nine existing portable classrooms attached to the school today. Twelve new classrooms will be added through the project as well as four science labs and additional meeting and storage spaces.
While the groundbreaking ceremony was a cause for celebration, it was also an opportunity to revisit a mistake that was made back in the late-90s. Thousands of students and dozens of teachers have worked through cramped quarters unnecessarily for nearly 25 years. As Superintendent Lou Taylor said this week, “Certainly it is a very, very proud day. We all recognize that this addition is a project this school has needed practically since its doors opened in 1997.” It’s hoped the addition will be ready for students in early 2023.