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Cecil County Public Schools announced Sunday night that school buildings would close effective Monday morning as the county’s COVID-19 metrics take a turn for the worse.

ELKTON — Students and families across the county got some unexpected news Sunday night as they sat down for dinner — students would not be returning to school Monday morning. Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) halted its phased reopening amid a surge in COVID-19 transmission, and learning will proceed virtually through at least Dec. 7.

“As of today, Cecil County has a six percent COVID-19 positivity rate and 15.4 cases per 100,000,” reads an announcement sent out just after 6 p.m. Sunday. “Due to this increase, all CCPS schools and offices will shut down effective immediately.”

The district moved into a new phase of reopening last week, with schools bringing students back in two cohorts of two days a week. As of Friday, schools reported 25 cases of the virus among face-to-face students and staff, numbers which suggest community spread rather than broad transmission within schools.

CCPS Associate Superintendent Carolyn Teigland emphasized that teachers and staff have worked hard to reopen schools safely.

As an administrator, she is frustrated to see the virus continue to spread throughout the community and threaten the stability of the school environment. As a parent, she is frustrated that her own students aren’t able to thrive in the classroom.

“It is frustrating,” she said. “We’ve worked so hard to reopen, and it’s not easy — our teachers and our administrators are working harder than they’ve ever worked, and they are doing fantastic things for kids.”

Even as trends indicated rampant spread of the virus nationwide, administrators projected cautious optimism at a board meeting Wednesday evening that strong enforcement of mitigation strategies would allow school buildings to stay open.

Administrators played a different tune as recently as Friday, when Superintendent Jeff Lawson wrote in an email to the CCPS community that stopped short of confirming one way or another whether schools would close.

“While I have been a strong advocate for bringing our students back, the safety of our students and staff remains the most important factor,” Lawson wrote. “We will continue to very closely monitor Cecil County’s data.”

In an email to The Whig, CCPS Public Information Officer Kelly Keeton wrote that while state and local health metrics were a critical factor, staffing was another area of concern — last week, the district had 52 staff quarantining after potential exposure, a number which continues to grow.

Teigland explained that the district can find substitutes for only 60 percent of open spots on average, meaning administrators do a daily dance to accommodate classes without an available instructor. Switching back to virtual learning considerably eases this strain.

According to Teigland, they suspected that this might be the last week of in-person learning before shutting down. Ultimately, staffing concerns taken alongside the weekend’s health data tipped the scales of the decision sooner than anticipated.

Keeton acknowledged that administrators would have liked to give families more notice.

“We had begun planning for the possibility of needing to close and thought we would be able to give more lead time to parents and staff,” she wrote. “However, once we saw the steady increase in county data and assessed our school staffing numbers on Saturday and Sunday, it became very apparent that it was not going to be possible.”

CCPS wasn’t alone in the decision. Harford County Public Schools closed doors last week just weeks after rolling out a hybrid reopening for elementary students, while Howard County’s school system announced Monday that it would suspend in-person programs.

While announcing virtual learning through the rest of the semester might help families plan their holidays better, Teigland explained that the district settled on closing through at least Dec. 7 because they didn’t want to overshoot.

“We don’t want to make a decision to do an extended closure and then have things change, and we could have reopened,” she said. “To make the decision to close through the winter break — which I know would in some ways help families plan — we don’t feel would be responsible given that we don’t have the ability to see in the future.”

Many expect Thanksgiving gatherings to worsen the nationwide surge. Tiegland advised parents to watch health metrics, and to brace for the shutdown to be extended unless the health metrics quickly took a turn for the better.

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