Somerset public schools have returned to the classroom, but obstacles still remain

Richard Pollitt
Salisbury Daily Times

On Monday, Nov. 2, all Somerset County Public Schools students had the option to return to in-person instruction.

The school system began the final phase of its return to the classroom plan which allows students Pre-K through Grade 12 the option for in-person learning. Somerset began to bring students back on Oct. 5 and have gradually increased their numbers over the past month.

Superintendent John Gaddis said as of Monday about 53% of the district’s students have or will soon return to the classroom. Somerset County is currently operating in a traditional Monday through Friday module.

Gaddis said should 100% of the student population opt to return in the upcoming weeks, the school system in not currently prepared to house each individual while adhering to CDC guidelines.

A reevaluation process would take place where Gaddis said some of the non-traditional areas in school buildings, such as conference rooms and the cafeteria or gymnasium, could be used for instruction. A module could also be in place where students are divided into groups and have in-person learning one week and virtual the following.

But the current plan does not account for a full return of the student body, even though it is now permitted for every student to transition back to in-person learning.

“It’s always going to be reevaluated because there’s always going to be circumstances that come up,” Gaddis said. “We met last week to determine what would we do (if the overwhelming majority of students come back.)

“Ultimately, if everyone came back, we would have to change what we do.”

John Gaddis

It’s issues like these that have created some concern among parents and staff members. In his more than three decades as an educator, Gaddis said the currently academic year is one that’s required unprecedented action.

However, the Somerset superintendent is adamant he and his staff are doing everything possible to ensure students’ safety while attempting to return to a traditional academic year.

He is in constant communication with the health department, monitoring the county’s COVID-19 case count and positivity rate. Somerset has reported 451 cases and a 5.1% positivity rate as of Monday, which represents a nearly 3% spike in a two-day span.  

Gaddis said should the county’s overall positivity rate hit 10%, it is likely the school system would revert back to a virtual learning format, similar to what Dorchester County Public Schools officials enacted following a spike.

“As long as we can keep it under that, I think we can keep going,” Gaddis said. “Will we have closures? Yes, but maybe they won’t be as long. We can do the cleaning part and make sure everything’s right. We do expect a little spike, but that’s when the communication with the health department will be vital.”

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Deciding to close down 

Somerset schools have reported cases since allowing students to return to the classroom.

In the most recent seven-day span, six students and three staff members have received positive tests with up to 35 individuals quarantining. Some of these cases caused the temporary shutdown of Princess Anne and Greenwood elementary schools.

Both buildings will be closed until Nov. 16 allowing a full deep clean of each school.

The school system made the decision due to the number of recently reported positive COVID-19 test results from occupants within both schools, in combination with receiving notice from families that several students from both schools are now self-quarantining due to developing symptoms.

Back to school mask

There have also been confirmed cases at other county schools, such as Crisfield High and Woodson Elementary, according to Gaddis.

However, those buildings remain open.

When an individual tests positive in the school system, officials immediately begin contact tracing to identify others that could have been exposed. The CDC defines close contact as closer than six feet for 15 minutes or more throughout a 24-hour period with a confirmed case.

Should an individual meet this criteria, they are asked to quarantine for at least 14 days and are not allowed back into a school until they are cleared by the health department.

Through their contact tracing, Somerset school officials determined it was not necessary to close places such as Crisfield and Woodson. Gaddis said a full sanitation of the affected classroom or area immediately takes place, and a deep clean of each building is done every night.

“I think the things that are being done at school are working well,” he said. “Masks are being worn, we’re doing what we can for social distancing …and we’ve tried to communicate (with parents) as much as possible.

“I think people are misunderstanding the difference between a positive case and quarantining. That’s what’s going to get us more – if I don’t have enough staff to run buildings because they’re quarantined, we’ve got to do something.”

More sick leave for teachers? 

Somerset Public Schools gave its teachers the option to telework at the beginning of the semester should they not feel comfortable returning to in-person learning. Gaddis said just over 30 county instructors took advantage of the opportunity.

Like students, screening tests and temperature checks take place every day before an individual can enter the building. Should a teacher exhibit any COVID-19 symptoms or display any type of poor health, they are asked to return home.

A sign is posted in front of a school noting face masks are required upon entry.

Gaddis said teachers have been granted 10 additional sick days, however, can only use them should they tests positive or be sent home by school officials after failing a screening test.

If a teacher calls the school and says they wish not to enter school grounds because they’re experiencing COVID-19 type symptoms, they are not eligible for the 10 additional days. They must first attempt a screening test prior to entering the building and deemed a potential health risk.

“I feel bad they even need to come in, because when you feel sick, the last thing you want to do is go in,” Gaddis said. “They’re being screened every day, and with teachers I get it – there’s a lot of stress going on. But we’re doing everything we can to keep everyone safe.”

It’s not a perfect system. Gaddis understands there will be parents or others who believe the right course of action wasn’t taken.

However, he and other officials with Somerset County Public Schools continue to follow the guidelines while ensuring students receive their education.

Gaddis said discussions have taken place every day to reevaluate plans, introduce better alternatives and prevent a spread of the virus throughout the school system.

“It’s about having teachers and staff keenly aware of students in the classroom and behaviors that they see,” he said. “Coming to school sick is only going to spread this thing. But if we sense anything wrong, we immediately remove them from the classroom.”