CUMBERLAND — Allegany County Public Schools students will soon return to in-person learning following a hybrid plan.

Because of the global pandemic, students have not regularly been in school buildings since March.

The ACPS school board during a special meeting Monday voted to implement the first of two re-opening options recently suggested by Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon.

“Our county’s hybrid plan, which has already been approved before in the fall, is in line with Option One,” ACPS Interim Superintendent Jeff Blank said. “The plans must continue to include mask wearing and social distancing. So no matter what we do, those are still in play.”

The plan includes the following timeline:

• Feb. 8 — Center for Career & Technical Education skills area students, and pupils without internet connectivity return.

• Feb. 13 — Fall athletics and extra-curricular activities begin.

• March 1 — Pre-K, kindergarten, first grade, struggling and special needs students return.

• March 8 — Students in grades two through five, six, nine and 12 return.

• March 15 — Students in grades seven, eight, 10 and 11 return.

Parents have the option for their child to remain in a virtual learning environment.

Detailed information will be provided as more plans are finalized, school officials said.

The board’s decision follows what many local school officials describe as a sudden and confusing announcement by Gov. Larry Hogan at a press conference Thursday.

“If school systems do not immediately begin a good-faith effort to return to the classroom, we will explore every legal avenue at our disposal,” Hogan said at that time.

“I was very surprised by what the governor did,” ACPS board member and Maryland Association of Boards of Education President Tammy Fraley said at Monday’s meeting, and added that the state’s push to return students and staff to school works against earlier recommendations from health officials that COVID-19 case rates and other metrics should guide decisions.

“I question ... what the plan is going to be if our (COVID-19) community spread goes back up,” she said. “I believe that all employees as well as all students should have been heard in this matter.”

Board Vice President Bob Farrell agreed.

“It is very suspect that the governor made this rash decision,” he said. “We are trying to be very cautious about what we do, but we are also trying to help the kids and get them back as soon as we can.”

Board President Crystal Bender said she supports the scheduling of return-to-school dates.

“I don’t think anybody necessarily was in favor of Governor Hogan’s delivery,” she said. “But ... the public needs to see that there is a plan to move forward.”

Bender called the current COVID-19 vaccine plan, which includes two doses spaced weeks apart, “a wonderful step forward” for the county.

“We’re getting hundreds vaccinated this week, more (doses will be) available next week,” she said. “Hopefully the second dose is there when it’s supposed to be.”

Board member Deb Frank said she wouldn’t support a “large, full-scale” school reopening plan before March 1 because the vaccination process just started.

Additionally, Hogan’s “negative attack-mode comments against the teachers was just uncalled for,” Frank said.

“I have seen teachers working ridiculously long hours since last March and seven days a week trying to create a learning environment for students,” she said. “I hope that teachers and school personnel can realize that so many (people) in this community appreciate them.”

Bender read a statement from Allegany County Education Association President Kim Sloane that expressed concern over a return to school before local COVID-19 case rates are within guidelines deemed safe by health officials.

“In addition, we now have a number of variant strains of the virus, with at least one already identified in Maryland, and which clinical data suggest are not only more easily transmitted, but also infect both adults and children more easily and more intensely,” the statement read. “ACEA members want their students to return when it is safe to do so.”

State and local COVID-19 cases

The Maryland Health Department Monday reported 1,686 new COVID-19 cases, 36 new deaths and one additional hospitalization across the state in the past 24 hours.

The daily COVID-19 case positivity rate statewide was 6.84%, with Allegany County at 9.33%, Garrett County at 11.02% and Washington County at 10.85%.

The seven-day moving average COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 people statewide rate was 35.26, with Allegany County at 41.39, Garrett County at 20.19 and Washington County at 47.19.

The Allegany County Health Department reported 80 new COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths, bringing the county’s cumulative case count to 6,095 with 176 fatalities.

Local vaccinations and ‘public’s frustration’

ACHD continues to vaccinate residents age 75 and older and K-12 education workers, the department said via press release Monday.

“Clinics for licensed childcare providers will commence following the K-12 group,” the release stated.

Allegany County — like other jurisdictions in the state — is still in Phase 1B of the vaccination rollout due to the limited amounts of vaccine coming into local health departments.

The Maryland Department of Health Monday said the state gets roughly 10,000 COVID-19 doses per day from the federal government, which is not enough to meet demand.

“We share the public’s frustration,” ACHD Public Information Coordinator Brenda Caldwell said via the release. “Our goal is to get our entire county population vaccinated as quickly as possible, but that can only move as quickly as supplies come in.”

Each jurisdiction is different and progresses independently based on population demographics, she said.

“In rural Western Maryland, we have more older residents per capita than the metropolitan areas, which means it will take a little longer for us to vaccinate everyone in those age categories,” Caldwell said.

Some vaccination appointments are available for Allegany County residents age 75 and older, the release stated. To register, visit health.maryland.gov/allegany.

“Due to the current forecast of inclement winter weather on Tuesday, the Rawlings vaccination clinic has been canceled for January 26,” the release stated.”Those individuals who had appointments scheduled on that day have been automatically rescheduled for next Tuesday, February 2, in their original time slot.”

The Garrett County Health Department Monday said it will begin scheduling vaccinations for residents ages 75 and older “when additional COVID-19 vaccine becomes available.”

GCHD is also working with Garrett County Public Schools and local child care agencies to provide vaccine for their staff members.

“The timeline does not show availability of vaccine for Phase 1C persons, including those age 65-75 until at least mid-February,” GCHD said via press release. “The Garrett County Health Department will move to Phase 1C when it is apparent that those persons in phases 1A and B who desire a vaccine have had the opportunity to schedule an appointment.”

GCHD is not keeping a pre-registration list.

Additional education relief funding announced

Hogan Monday said school systems will get an additional $20.7 million in COVID-19 relief funding as they work to return students to classrooms.

“In addition to proposing a budget that funds education across the board at record levels, we are working to get federal COVID-19 relief funding out to schools and colleges as quickly as possible,” Hogan said via press release. “We are prioritizing this relief funding where it can do the most good for the most students.”

Last week, Hogan proposed a FY 2022 recovery budget that funds education at record levels, including $7.5 billion for K-12 schools.

The funding comes through the recently-enacted federal COVID-19 relief bill and includes $10 million for Competitive Innovation Grants.

Additionally, $7.4 million in Community College Workforce Development Programs will be utilized to immediately expand existing training and educational programs in locally “relevant sectors and to develop new in-demand training programs,” the release stated.

The governor will also award $200,000 per independent college to help address additional institutional costs resulting from the pandemic.

Additionally, the School for the Deaf will receive $479,094 and the School for the Blind will get $253,354 in grant funds.

“The funds will be used to purchase devices, including assistive technology and adaptive equipment for staff and students, implementing appropriate security tools, and providing professional development,” the release stated.

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