The Howard County Public School System is “planning” to host outdoor in-person graduation ceremonies this year for the Class of 2021 at Merriweather Post Pavilion, schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said.
The announcement late last week followed Gov. Larry Hogan’s updated statewide orders on March 9 that allow for larger capacities at events. Howard district leaders had said at previous school board meetings that they hoped to have in-person commencements, which were canceled last year and replaced with virtual ceremonies due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I am optimistic that the overall decrease in COVID-19 infections and increasing vaccine distribution should allow us to hold these momentous celebrations in-person this year,” Martirano said during Thursday’s school board meeting. “At this time, we are planning to hold in-person graduation ceremonies for each high school at Merriweather Post Pavilion.”
Graduations for Howard County high schools are typically held at Merriweather in late May or early June.
Martirano also said the school system would provide more information soon regarding the coronavirus-related rules that will be in place for the outdoor commencements.
Hogan’s orders opened up large indoor and outdoor venues to 50% capacity while keeping the state’s mask mandate.
Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, which has a large lawn space behind its covered seating, has a capacity of around 19,000. However, a Merriweather Post Pavilion spokesperson told WJZ last week that it wouldn’t be opening for concerts despite the governor’s more lenient orders.
Last spring, after the coronavirus shuttered school buildings, the topic of graduations was an important one for many in the community — especially for parents with seniors in the Class of 2020. The system decided to cancel the in-person events and instead streamed prerecorded ceremonies for its 12 public high schools, as well as Cedar Lane School and Homewood Center.
Meanwhile, some of the county’s private schools, like Glenelg Country School and Chapelgate, held drive-thru graduation ceremonies for its senior classes. Some neighborhoods even held small celebrations for the seniors who live on their street.
17 positive COVID-19 cases identified among school system students, staff
In-person learning began March 1 in Howard County, with approximately 4,000 students returning to buildings in the system’s five-day-a-week program. Then, on Monday, a few thousand more of the district’s youngest students started hybrid learning in the system’s A-day/B-day model.
While no outbreaks were reported last week by the Maryland Department of Health in any of the 77 public schools in Howard County, Martirano said the school system “experienced” 17 positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff from March 1 to 11. He said all the cases were related to “gatherings” outside school buildings and that there has not been any spread in schools or from school-related activities.
While there haven’t been any outbreaks in Howard County schools, that doesn’t mean the few cases that have been determined haven’t been impactful. Last week, three varsity and three junior varsity football teams at five Howard County high schools did not play their scheduled season openers due to coronavirus issues and related contact tracing.
“It is critically important to continue to take precautions,” Martirano said. “We understand that some positive cases will occur among students and staff, and we are prepared to respond to those cases and limit spread in our schools.”
Martirano also announced the district has received approximately 16,000 rapid COVID-19 test kits and 8,000 polymerase chain reaction kits from the state’s health department for free. Each school in the county will get 200 rapid tests and 100 PCR kits.
Students or staff showing coronavirus symptoms, or those identified by contact tracing, will be given a rapid test at school. Negative tests will then be confirmed through PCR tests, which are more reliable than the rapid tests and are processed at a lab within two to four days.
Fewer educators choose to stop working than expected
Last month, the school system surveyed its 8,000 educators on if they’d return to school buildings in March. Nearly 85% of those surveyed indicated they would return, while 12% requested accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act and 3.3% chose to stop working — either by taking leaving, resigning or retiring.
If the survey responses come to fruition, approximately 260 educators will choose to stop working instead of returning to buildings amid the coronavirus pandemic.
While more resignations, retirements and leave requests will occur in the next two months, February’s staffing numbers released last week likely show the number of staff who choose to stop working will be lower than originally expected.
In February, only 39 educators stopped working. Eight retired, while 10 resigned and 21 took long-term leave.
School system spokesperson Brian Bassett said the district does expect an above-average number of resignations, retirements and leave requests in March “but not hundreds.”
“Our current data shows that there will be significantly fewer resignations and retirements than the survey suggested,” Bassett wrote in an email. “That can be attributed to a combination of some people qualifying for leave who did not anticipate qualifying, so they took leave instead of resigning, while others changed their minds and reported to their work sites and did not leave the school system.”
Martirano also said the district has processed 97% of the 854 ADA requests it received. Approximately 63% of the requests were approved, while 30% were denied and another 4% were withdrawn by the educator. Two dozen requests were still pending as of March 11.
“The pace of vaccine availability for our staff is a good marker,” Martirano said. “And we know that many of our staff members who may have sought an ADA accommodation due to their inability to become vaccinated, will return to our buildings once they are fully vaccinated.”
Last week, the system revealed that 90% of its staff — including teachers, paraeducators, administrators, nurses, and food and nutrition staff — have received at least one dose of a vaccine or were scheduled to get their first shot.
Also during Thursday’s meeting:
Martirano said some families in the county who originally chose to keep their children virtual have since changed their minds. “Our desire is to accommodate in-person requests whenever possible,” he said.
He also said the board will discuss planning for the fall semester at its March 25 meeting. “It is my full expectation that our system will resume normalized instruction in the fall.”
Free meals will continue for all students, regardless of family income, through the end of September, per an extension of existing policy by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The system has served more than 4 million free meals since the beginning of the pandemic.
Clark’s Ace Hardware donated $143,000 worth of cleaning products and Plexiglas shields to the school system last week.
The board approved a $113,000 grant from the Bright Minds Foundation’s Access to Learning Fund for educational access support during virtual learning.
Construction projects for new heating, ventilation and air conditioning units at Rockburn Elementary, Pointers Run Elementary, Mount View Middle and Burleigh Manor Middle were all essentially finished earlier this year.
According to a presentation to the board, the district is looking to add eight more portable classrooms for the 2021-22 school year. A sign of overcrowding in its schools, the district would have 232 portables at its 77 schools if the eight are added.