The Hammond COVID Outbreak: Students and Staff Comment on Safety at School and the County’s Response

By Uma Ribeiro, Kevin Barry, Lydia Jensen, and Leaana Khan 

Editor-in-Chief, Managing & News Editor, Editorials Editor, A&E Editor 

Pictured above: Covid testing site located in Hammond’s gymnasium

Covid Rates Rise, Community Reacts, and County Responds

Following the significant rise in Covid-19 cases at several Howard County schools, Hammond High School being one of them, the Board of Education decided to keep instruction in-person for the time being. 

Hammond saw a spike in the number of virus cases before winter break, prompting a response from Superintendent Dr. Micheal Martirano entitled “Prioritizing In-Person Learning.” 

The days leading up to winter break also saw a significant increase in absences at Hammond, not only because of illness but also because of the fear surrounding getting sick or infecting others. 

On December 15th, there were 3,712 quarantined students and 132 quarantined staff countywide. 

It was stated by the HOCO Student Member of the Board, Peter Banyas, that “…we have a high school where over 50% of students are missing instruction.” 

Since Hammond had the highest rates of Covid-19 in the county at that time, we can only assume they were talking about us.

Hammond Principal Dr. John DiPaula released a Canvas announcement with the results of the Covid-19 testing which occurred before winter break on December 17th, stating that “Approximately 780 students and staff were tested, which resulted in 49 individuals testing positive.” 

With absences growing higher alongside cases of Covid-19, many were surprised at the county decision to keep schools open, especially schools like Hammond, where virus rates remain high. 

Following the many urges from students, staff, and parents to return to virtual learning, including a petition created by HCPSS students signed by over 10,000 community members, another statement was released by the Superintendent on January 7th. 

As many hospitals in Maryland, including Howard County General, remain in a state of emergency, Martirano wrote, “I want to be clear: The quality of support our students receive virtually is not ideal in comparison to those they receive in person.”

According to the HCPSS Covid-19 dashboard, “As of Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, there are 977 students and 209 staff members in quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 test or as a close contact.”  

The Bear Press interviewed Hammond students regarding this spike in Covid rates and the county’s decision to remain in the school building for instruction. 

Many students expressed concern regarding the recent Covid spike and outrage in response to the county decision, feeling the need to go virtual in order to preserve their health and education. 

Senior Kelly Kujawa commented, “To be frank, I’m highly concerned about the decision to remain in-person. It completely disregards the safety of the staff and students. Instead, it prioritizes the county’s desire for us to remain in-person, a priority none of the staff and students they’re subjecting to these dangerous conditions seem to hold in comparison.”

“I’m…worried about the spread of the virus through the schools. As we saw after Thanksgiving break, the Covid rates for the county escalated to a highly concerning level. It felt like half the school had it by the time winter break was upon us, and those who hadn’t gotten sick yet wound up having it during the break, such as myself. While that’s an exaggeration, the sentiment still stands: staying in the building undoubtedly caused numerous  people to come down with the virus, something that could have been prevented if the school board allowed us to close for those few weeks in between breaks,” she continued. 

Some students expressed frustration at the insufficient Coronavirus procedures for those returning to school after being in quarantine.

Sophomore Jacob Paul said, “They’re shortening the incubation period which isn’t helping the fact that the virus is still spreading. There is no evidence needed of a negative test to come back to school. They still shouldn’t send the kids back to school if we are asymptomatic, [as] this only increases the spread of the virus across the school.”

“I’m concerned that infection rates are going to rise to the point where schools are not able to properly operate,” commented senior Adom Amissah. 

“I feel as though a virtual learning option should be made. If rates rise exponentially, teachers and students then have a way to keep instruction going safely…I think that the [Board of Ed’s] decision is doing more harm than good,” she added. 

Junior Saana Nazir commented, “I’m not happy with [their] decision. I feel like the student’s safety is more important, and kids who miss school have a hard time catching back up. It’s better if everyone is on the same level. If not fully virtual, at least hybrid.”

Students also expressed disappointment in the Board of Education’s lack of attention to student voices and Superintendent Martirano’s responses to serious health concerns they have. In one response, he stated that the county’s “superior priority” is keeping instruction in-person. 

Kelly Kujawa commented on this, stating, “I found [Martirano’s statement] almost as sickening as having Covid. It’s entirely dismissive of the students’ safety and that of their loved ones. He’s quite literally saying that he cares far more about keeping schools open than he does about the students it’s his job to take care of. I find it to be more than a little insensitive, to say the least.”

“I haven’t expressed my concerns to [the Board of Education] primarily since I know they’ll be ignored. As we can see from the chaos of midterms and finals changing out of the blue, the school board and SMOB seem to have a mind of their own. It seems pointless to make an appeal towards a group that has a history of irrational decision-making and lacks communication with their staff and students,” she added. 

Saana Nazir commented, “I was really annoyed [at the statement] because the “superior priority” should be the students’ health and safety.”

Sophomore William Bramble agreed. He said, “The superior priority [should be] the students’ health….at the moment, it doesn’t look like anything is going to get the school system’s attention. I saw there was a petition with [more than] 8,000 signatures, and HCPSS did not care at all.” 

On Twitter, the Board of Education was met with significant backlash after they announced their own meetings would continue to be virtual or hybrid while HCPSS students and staff went to in-person school and work each day, risking their own health and possibly exposing themselves to Covid-19. 

Hammond students also expressed how they feel their education has been impacted due to fears of contracting the virus. 

“Because there are so many kids absent from schools, teachers have had to compensate in order to allow those present and absent to equally learn. It’s caused a lot of my classes to move at a slower pace,” commented Kelly Kujawa. 

Junior Saana Nazir said, “I’m uncomfortable [in school] because it seems like a matter of time before I get Covid. My friends and people I know are dropping like flies, and the precautions and rules aren’t really doing anything to decrease the numbers.” 

“A lot of my friends are missing school, and that makes it harder to really pay attention or feel motivated. One of the main factors that make in-person learning [what it is] is being with other people. Also it’s just stressful to think you might get a disease and have to make up all the work you might miss. The Covid tests are a good idea, but it cuts into class time,” she added. 

Sophomore Jacob Paul says the rise in virus rates and the county decision is “…interfering with being a student athlete. They are banning the use of water bottles which makes it harder to keep hydrated.”

Senior Adom Amissah also commented on remaining in-person while the virus rates remain elevated, saying, “…it makes me much more cautious of my surroundings to the point where focusing on learning is a bit difficult. It is hard to listen to the teacher while also trying to make sure that you and those around you are not infected. You can try to keep the thought in the back of your mind, but the anxiety you feel about this virus is very prominent.” 

Increased Safety Measures Amidst the Spike

The Bear Press asked Hammond Assistant Principal, Mr. DiFato, about the safety measures being taken to keep students and staff safe at Hammond. 

Testing has occurred at Hammond a few times, but it remains unclear how often and for how long testing will be offered.

“…we don’t know [how often testing will occur at Hammond]. We advocate for it, but really it’s HCPSS and the health department that…make that decision. When they ask us, we’re like “Yes absolutely.” Before break, we had high numbers, but the numbers are going down, so I’m not sure if it’s going to continue, but we’ll jump at any opportunity because we’d rather have it here for our students than [for them] to have to go wait in line for hours out there,” commented Mr. DiFato. 

Hammond teachers encourage students to take advantage of these safety measures to better protect themselves from the virus.

Social Studies teacher, Mr. Livieratos, said, “…if you’re eligible to get vaccinated and boosted, absolutely do that. All the science points to that being the best protection against Covid. Also wear your mask. Maybe even consider, with this variant, [that] the CDC is considering upping your mask game to a KN95 or an N95 mask or double masking.”

“Oh and lastly– maybe most importantly, do the HCPSS health screen check before you come to school everyday. Do not come to school sick. Your teachers will work with you to make up missing work,” he added.  

Going Forward: What the Future of this School Year Could Look Like 

Pictured above: Baltimore Sun headline regarding the petition to go virtual created by HCPSS students

With many other surrounding counties going virtual, the possibility of Howard County schools, specifically ones like Hammond where Covid rates remain elevated overall, going virtual is a real one. 

Hammond teachers are already making it easier for those students who are at home sick or quarantining to stay on track with their assignments and not fall behind. 

Mr. Livieratos commented, “I’m doing my best to put everything on Canvas and to allow extended time for make-up work.”

Students continue to take to social media and email Board of Ed members, advocating for a return to virtual learning so they can focus on their education unimpeded by the fear of contracting the virus or passing it on to vulnerable friends and family. 

Hammond seniors express concern that activities such as an in-person graduation and prom, which have been canceled due to high virus rates in the past, will be canceled again. 

Senior Adom Amissah commented, “I do believe that the county’s current decision will impact future activities. It is better to take action now in order to ensure that school gets closer to being much more normal, like before the pandemic.”

Kelly Kujawa added, “I have a feeling that because of their lack of inaction now, future events will be canceled because of the rise of Covid, [which] they allowed to happen.”

Though a lot remains out of Hammond’s control, Hammond staff try to support each other during these stressful times.

Mr. DiFato commented, “…we support staff as much as we can. We give them what they ask for. I mean, we have to follow the county guidelines. The county right now says we’re not going virtual, so we’re here. We’re making things virtual [when] we can. For example, [we’ve turned] staff meetings virtual just to help alleviate what we can. When staff brings concerns to us, we try to address them as quickly as possible. If we have kids in class not wearing masks, we pull them up and call their home…We are beholden by following the county guidelines from HCPSS.”

Despite the lingering anxieties and uncertainties regarding what the future of this school year and school years to follow could look like, Hammond students and staff continue to try and adapt to what the county decides. 

“When we’re in the building, we’re telling everyone to wear their masks…As soon as HCPSS moved to promoting the KN95s, we all started wearing them. We’re handing them out at lunch; we’re here every day, all week handing them out. We got the testing, we’re in the hallways asking kids to wear their masks and keep them on. Same with teachers. We’ve had to move a couple things [and] we’ve had to cancel some things and push them back, [like] different social events, different co-curricular events, just out of an abundance of caution and to keep people safe,” Mr. DiFato told The Bear Press.

Hammond staff is also “…working with the health department and HCPSS to make sure we [are following] the guidelines and providing virtual options whenever we can. We had our big scheduling event, for scheduling for next year…we pivoted pretty quickly and made that virtual,” he added. 

“That’s kinda what we’re dealing with, we just [have to] try to stay on our toes and we have to pivot as much as we can during this thing.”

Students, parents, and community members have not stopped advocating for what they believe the right option is, with an overwhelming majority calling for a return to virtual learning in the event of another COVID outbreak. 

Signing of petitions, emails to the Board of Education, and advocacy throughout social media did not stop following the return to school after winter break or after the statements released by Martirano. 

As other counties go virtual, listening to their community members, it is safe to assume that Howard County community members will not stop advocating for the safest option for students, staff, and families. 

With an increase in travel usually occurring during spring break and the warmer months, we should expect another spike in cases, just as we saw the weeks before winter break. 

“I think the job of the Board of Education is to keep students and staff safe. However they best decide to determine that is what they’re elected for. As long as they’re keeping that as their number one goal, then I’m fine with whatever policy they decide,” commented Mr. Livieratos. 

“These Board members were elected by you and serve you. You are their constituents and as your Government teacher, I strongly encourage you to, however you feel about the situation, to be an advocate for you and the people in your life that you love,” he added. 

To make your voice heard and to advocate as an HCPSS student or Howard County community member, email your Board of Education representatives, contact HCPSS Superintendent Dr. Martirano, speak out and testify to the members of the Board at their meetings or send a written statement, encourage your family and friends to get involved and make their concerns known as constituents, and sign the petition created by HCPSS students to go virtual. 

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