EASTON — Talbot County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kelly Griffith is predicting students and school employees will still be wearing masks when children return to classrooms full-time this fall.
Griffith said during a recent county board of education meeting that cleaning and personal hygiene protocols will still be in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 when kids are back in schools, and students also “probably will still be wearing masks.”
The district has not yet determined whether temperature checks will still be required among attendees, Griffith said, but that will depend on health guidance, and the status of the coronavirus pandemic locally and across the state.
All students in the district are expected to return to classrooms five days a week starting this fall for the 2021-2022 school year. The district is currently allowing elementary students four days of face-to-face learning per week, but only two days in person for middle and high schoolers, with the remaining days online.
The Board of Education calls for all schools to reopen for in-person instruction five days a week this fall.
While the state education board issued the guidance for all students to be learning in person come August on Tuesday, TCPS had already announced its plan to get its students back in classrooms this upcoming academic year.
TCPS has been ahead of most jurisdictions across the state in planning and executing its recovery efforts during the pandemic’s entirety. The district reopened its schools for part-time in-person learning in early February and has not since had to close any of its schools for a COVID-19 outbreak.
Griffith said when students return full-time in the fall she’s hoping for fewer restrictions but continued caution. She said she wants students to be back in classrooms five days a week and able to move around the building safely.
The superintendent acknowledged that the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic could change, though she said that should not affect students’ return to schools.
“If things change, we’ll have to figure out how to change, but as of right now we’re being told to plan for a full return to school,” Griffith said. “If things turn around and we end up like we were in December, then it may change.”
Griffith said she doesn’t “have a crystal ball,” and all she knows is that she has a list of plans for responding to different circumstances. When the time comes, “we’ll pull the plan that we need to pull,” she said.
EASTON — Could rural communities, such as Talbot County, be the next big thing?
The answer is yes, predicted Dr. Connie Reimers-Hild, founder and chief futurist at strategic consulting firm Wild Innovation, who was the featured speaker at the Talbot County Department of Economic Development and Tourism Virtual Business Appreciation Summit Friday.
“The unique strengths of a place like Talbot County provide a strong foundation for a future characterized by innovation, growth, prosperity, and well-being,” said Reimers-Hild during the virtual event.
In 2020, the year of COVID, the strengths of rural communities became their super powers, she said. For years, rural America witnessed a depopulation, as its the older population passed away and younger generations left. But COVID reversed that trend as city dwellers moved to rural America and small towns during the pandemic In 2015, Reimers-Hild predicted the return to rural communities.
The major reason for the changing population trend in is remote working became commonplace during the pandemic. Rural communities allowed a quality of life not available in cities, from self-fulfillment to the psychological impacts.
New residents of these communities “recognize the value in rural America,” she said, adding Talbot County has seen a population increase since the start of COVID.
The trend is not a fade anytime soon, she predicted. A recent Robert Hunt poll of business executives found 46 percent said a hybrid workforce will be the new normal. Nearly a third said of respondents said remote work is need to retain key employees.
Another group discovering rural America is the 50-plus population. During the summit, Reimers-Hild cited a study showing the 50-plus population currently brought in $8.3 billion to rural economies, but within a few years that figure is predicted to triple to $28.2 billion. The 50-plus population is a much sought after demographic, because they tend to start businesses, volunteer and become leaders in their adopted communities, she said.
Corporations are also seeing the value of rural America, said Reimers-Hild, who worked with corporate leaders, including Microsoft and Google, as well as numerous communities, universities, and small businesses to reimagine the future of rural people and places.
“Corporations are now seeing rural America as the last frontier,” she said. “They’re beginning to see value in rural America.”
However, in certain rural communities there’s some friction. Housing is becoming an issue, from affordability to availability, she said.
Also during the summit, community impact awards were presented to businesses and community projects across Talbot County.
Building African American Minds, or BAAM, is creating a blueprint for success for youngsters in Easton. Founded by Dina and Derick Daly, the Jowite Street facility aims to address socio-economic barriers via educate, character building and laying a foundation of success for young Black men.
“We provide after-school services and tutoring for African-American males — all males, really — in the Easton elementary school system,” said Derick. “We do everything we can to get the children to a level academically and socially where they can succeed in school and in life.”
Roland Enterprises’ received an award for renovating the ACME grocery store in the Town Center St. Michaels. When the grocery store shuttered on Talbot Street, residents were worried about blight. Those fears were eased when local developer Bob Hockaday and his wife Julie Moriarty Hockaday turned the building into a vibrant, bustling center of commerce with upscale stores and a coffee shop.
“We take existing structure and redevelop them,” said Bob. “When ACME announced that they were going to close, we wanted to renovate it and restore it and bring it back to its vibrant self.”
The Waterfowl Festival received an award for its economic impact on Talbot County. For half a century, the festival rose out of the local community’s interest in tradition and the protection of habitat for winter waterfowl.
“We are now seeing our fourth generation of visitors and they are being carried or pushed in strollers by their parents and grandparents,” said Margaret Enloe, executive director of Waterfowl Chesapeake, the conservation partner of the festival. “We love that people come back for this Eastern Shore homecoming year after year after year.”
Helping those in need is the cornerstone of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
“It’s simple, really,” said Alex Handy, president of the organization. “We serve those in need.”
The Easton facility is best known for its food pantry. Shelf stable items such as cereal, peanut butter, tuna, pasta, canned vegetables, and fruit are purchased from the Maryland Food Bank. Perishable items, including milk, bread, meat, produce, and frozen vegetables close to their sell-by dates are collected daily from local stores.
Hometown heroes Marla and Harold Baines were recognize for their dedication to the community.
Over the years, Harold and Marla have supported numerous projects that benefit the area, including the Bay Hundred Community Pool, the Perkins YMCA, and the Harold Baines Scholarship Fund, which assists deserving young people. In 2018, they started the St. Michaels Alumni Program to benefit students at their alma mater. Harold Baines is an Easton native and Hall of Fame baseball player.
“We’re just doing our part,” Harold said. “When I was a kid, this community took care of me. This is my opportunity to give back to the community. That’s a big part of why we’re still living here.”
In the changing world of the pandemic and other upheavals, emergency operations became important for communities.
The Emergency Operations Center has been activated for more than 400 days. Talbot County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was presented a Community Impact Award at the annual Business Appreciation Summit, held virtually on Friday, April 30.
On March 15, Talbot County activated its Emergency Operations Center team, a group of community partners and stakeholders tasked with responding to community threats. When the EOC is activated, those partners report to the Operations Center on Port Street in Easton, a centralized location where professionals from all disciplines come together to collectively respond to a crisis.
When the EOC was activated, Clay Stamp was serving as the director of Talbot County’s Department of Emergency Services.
“As an emergency manager, one of the primary tasks is to bring the community together during sunny days to assess risk and identify all of those things that could adversely affect your community,” said Stamp who now serves as county manager. “You build relationships, you evaluate the risks, and you plan for what you will do when something happens.”
In the case of the pandemic, the Emergency Operations Center mobilized to offer support to the Talbot County Health Department, the local agency charged with addressing public health issues.
“Our responsibility in an emergency situation is to wrap ourselves around an organizational solution when we have a crisis in our community, in this case an emerging infectious disease,” Stamp explains. “We are very fortunate to have had two accomplished physicians leading the Talbot County Health Department, the lead agency in this crisis.”
Dr. Fredia Wadley, a pediatrician and former Commissioner of Heath for the state of Tennessee, was the Talbot County Health Officer until her retirement in December 2020. In January, Dr. Maria Maguire took the helm.
“We are deeply indebted as a community to Dr. Wadley’s exceptional leadership during the first half of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Maguire said. “I am certain that, because of her thoughtful and thorough management of this public health emergency during her tenure, Talbot County benefitted from having lower infection rates and hospitalizations than most of the state.”
The Health Department established a contact tracing unit and called on Talbot County residents to follow health protocols including masks, frequent handwashing, and social distancing. As the virus spread, the department established testing sites and has led the way in deploying the vaccine.
“A common saying is that all public health is local, and responding to public health emergencies is a central element of our mission as a local health department,” Dr. Maguire explains. “I am in awe of the tireless dedication and work ethic displayed by the staff and volunteers of our health department. For the past 13-plus months, our county public health workers have really gone above and beyond the call of duty.”
Gold sponsors for the event included APG Media of Chesapeake (the parent company of The Star Democrat) and Shore United Bank. Provident State Bank and the Talbot Chamber of Commerce were silver sponsors, and Easton Economic Development Corporation joined the Town of Oxford as contributing sponsors.
ST. MICHAELS — The Commissioners of St. Michaels voted unanimously April 29 to keep an outdoor mask mandate in place, despite Gov. Larry Hogan’s lifting of the statewide pandemic restriction a day earlier.
The town’s outdoor mask mandate, which is required within six feet of another person, would apply for the next 30 days unless the commissioners decide to revise it. The town will vote again in a month to keep the mandate in place or lift it.
Commissioner Tad DuPont said St. Michaels attracts a large amount of tourists, so keeping the mask mandate in place was necessary.
“For community health concerns, resident health concerns, the number of people that walk our streets that haven’t been vaccinated, we will continue to leave our mask ordinance in place,” he said.
The move met resistance from the police department, including the police chief and one police officer that called into a special meeting before the commissioners came to a consensus.
Anthony Smith, the police chief for the town of St. Michaels, said the mask mandate “will be hard to enforce” and “challenging” for the small police department considering it contradicts the governor’s orders.
“There’s going to be some difficult roads ahead,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot on our plates besides dealing with the mask mandate.”
Government mask mandates were put in place last spring when the novel coronavirus first led to statewide and local restrictions.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask and social distancing guidelines on April 27. The U.S. has fully vaccinated more than 30% of its population. The new guidelines allow fully vaccinated people to gather in small groups outdoors without a mask and recommends lifting mask mandates outdoors.
In response to the new guidelines, Hogan lifted the outdoor mask mandate for Marylanders and all restrictions on outdoor dining. He kept the mandate in place for large venues outdoors and for all indoor businesses and facilities.
The commissioners came to a consensus to keep a mask mandate in place during a special meeting last night, repeatedly bringing up concerns with the amount of tourists on small sidewalks, which Commissioner Jaime Windon compared to large outdoor venues.
“The governor’s announcement nor the CDC’s proclamation this week doesn’t change the way I feel about our crowded sidewalks,” said Windon. “There’s a great argument to be made ... that the sidewalks in St. Michaels are, in fact, a crowded event on a Saturday.”
And Commissioner David Breimhurst said Talbot County is “high-risk.”
“We’ve got 50% of the population vaccinated but that means 50% is not,” he said. “To needlessly risk exposure to residents and employees of shops and restaurants, I think, would be a mistake at this point.”
Talbot County has a positivity rate for COVID-19 infections of under 5% and it has one of the smallest case counts in the state.
St. Michaels is not the first government that has declined to follow the governor’s orders. Montgomery County’s county executive also said he would not lift an outdoor mask mandate shortly after Hogan’s announcement.
St. Michaels is unique because of its high traffic in the summertime, which usually starts around May and June. President Joyce Harrod said the town is in “a booming time” already.
“The town is busy,” she said. “This is the opening of summer.”
Kristen Greenaway, the president of Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, which attracts a chunk of the tourists in town, told the commissioners she supported the mask mandate.
“This makes it, from the museum’s perspective, a great deal easier for us to be a safe, family-friendly place to go,” she said.
But Jennifer Smith, the owner of Galley Cafe, pointed out it was a contradiction to have separate rules for outdoor dining and an outdoor mask mandate on the streets and sidewalks.
She said her employees would not be wearing masks when outdoors on her property. The commissioners said they would not interfere with businesses on their property.
Smith also mentioned that customers will not have to wear a mask while dining outdoors but when transitioning to the street, they will have to put it back on.
“As someone dealing with people constantly, I’m going to hear about this,” she said.
St. Michaels already has signs up in town to make visitors and residents aware of the mask mandate. A violation is a $50 fine.
The town could have trouble enforcing the rule with the rest of the Shore following the governor’s orders, at least as of right now, but Windon argued that “it’s not a hard ask to keep masks on our sidewalks” and last summer, most tourists complied.
But Smith, the police chief, argued that it will be hard to enforce.
He said “the rules of engagement” have changed from last summer, considering the state lifted the restrictions and millions of Americans have now been vaccinated. The police chief expects only 75% of people to comply if police enforce the rule.
“Just understand that’s what we are going to have to deal with,” he said. “We will do the best we can.”