Schools Reverse Reopening Plans as COVID-19 Cases Increase

unsplash.com photo by Maximilian Scheffler

More local school systems have rolled back their reopening plans as coronavirus cases steadily increase across the state.

On Thursday morning, the state reported ­­­­1,477 new cases and a positive test rate of 5.65%, passing the 5% benchmark set by the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization, to indicate a high spread of COVID-19, for the fourth day in a row. Maryland’s positivity rate had not gone above 5% since June 25.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced Tuesday that bars and restaurants must reduce dine-in capacity from 75% to 50%, advised against traveling to states with a positive test rate rate of more than 10% and encouraged telework.

However, neither Hogan nor the Maryland State Department of Education offered additional guidance to schools, continuing to leave it to local school systems to decide whether to remain virtual or to return to at least some in-person learning. MSDE continues to refer to existing guidance issued in August, which suggests that schools consider limited in-person learning or close if more than 5% of COVID-19 tests are positive and if the number of new cases exceeds 15 per 100,000 residents.

At a press conference Thursday, Hogan and Dr. Jinlene Chan, deputy secretary of public health services for the Maryland Department of Health, said that state’s health metrics for reopening schools have not changed.

“It [school reopening decisions] ultimately is the decision of the local school board in conjunction with the local health department,” Chan said. She encouraged school districts to balance the needs of education and mental health for children.

About half of local school districts reversed plans to return to in-person learning. Here’s an updated chart:

On Tuesday night, Allegany’s school board voted to have all students remain in virtual learning until COVID-19 tests and cases in the county are below the 5% positivity rate and fewer than 15 cases per 100,000 residents, for five consecutive days. Allegany County’s case rate reached 66.54 cases per 100,000, one of the highest in the state. The week of Nov. 16 will be virtual learning for all students.

Anne Arundel County announced that it will delay its hybrid reopening plan (originally set to begin on Nov. 16) until the start of the second semester, and temporarily will pause in-person athletics. The county’s seven-day average new case rate is now at 21.3 per 100,000 cases.

Baltimore County planned to reopen four school buildings for special education students starting Nov. 16, but cancelled those plans due to rising coronavirus cases.

Unlike its surrounding counties, Baltimore City continues its plan to reopen 27 school buildings on Nov. 16 for around 1,200 students with disabilities, early learners, English learners, homeless students, students in grades 6 and 9 and students who cannot consistently participate in virtual learning. Unlike the student learning centers, which provide a place and support for students to do homework, these in-person opportunities will operate more like traditional schools, where students are taught by teachers in a classroom.

Baltimore City Public Schools will dispatch health care professionals to in-person learning locations to test symptomatic staff or students on site. Test results should be returned within 48 hours, according to Gwendolyn Chambers, a spokeswoman for Baltimore City Public Schools.

However, Baltimore City teachers and nurses do not approve of these measures.

“To respond to the alarming rise in numbers with the expanding in-person learning even further, is reckless and dangerous,” Diamonté Brown, president of Baltimore Teachers Union, said during a press conference Thursday morning. “We shouldn’t be talking about schools reopening right now. We should be talking about safety, survival and what’s best for the students, families and residents of Baltimore City.”

Although Baltimore City Public Schools have only reported one positive COVID-19 case at an in-person learning site, Brown said that the school district has not been transparent with its data and she questioned its accuracy.

Nurses who work in Baltimore City schools still do not have enough personal protective equipment to keep them safe, which can also harm students whom they are trying to care for, said Wendy Smith, president of Local 558 of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

In the middle of phasing in hybrid learning, Garrett County officials announced this week that they will switch students back to a fully virtual learning model beginning Thursday and continuing until at least Dec. 10. All in-person athletics and extracurricular activities are canceled.

Harford County will also return to virtual learning for all students on Friday, which includes closing learning support centers.

St. Mary’s County began hybrid learning on Nov. 2, but canceled all in-person instruction this week because of a spike in new cases, possibly linked to gatherings over Halloween weekend, school superintendent James Scott Smith wrote in a letter to staff and families. This will give the health department time to do contract tracing and isolate those who test positive for COVID-19, he continued.

Somerset County announced that it will close all schools for the next three weeks due to rising COVID-19 cases there.

Charles County postponed plans to move students to in-person learning until next year. But student learning centers remain open.

Washington County will not hold in-person classes and activities from Nov. 16 until Dec. 7, but specialized small groups of students, such as English learners and those without Internet, will continue in-person instruction, according to Erin Anderson, a spokeswoman for Washington County Public Schools.

Stephen Decatur High School in Worcester County has moved back to distance learning until November 30, after three COVID-19 cases within 24 hours. On Thursday, Worcester Technical High School also returned to virtual learning.

After demands from teachers’ unions and legislators for more transparent school-specific data, the state set up a dashboard of coronavirus cases in private and public schools, which is updated once a week. Grace Academy, a private school in Washington County, reported 14 cases Wednesday morning, while Joppatowne Elementary School in Harford County reported six cases — among the highest.

“This should have started months ago,” Cheryl Bost, the president of Maryland State Education Association, said about the school data dashboard.

Still, the new dashboard lacks critical information, such as the specific date when cases occur, what the community spread is for each school, and whether cases are coming from staff or students, Bost said. The dashboard also should be updated daily for families to be able to make better decisions, she added.

In hindsight, school districts that chose to remain virtual throughout the first semester, such as Prince George’s County, made a wise decision because they can focus on mastering virtual learning without the disruption of pulling students in and out of school buildings, Bost said.

“Now is the time to make sure we get virtual learning right,” Bost said. “This could be a back and forth of closing and opening all winter long, and it’s very disruptive for our students and educators.”

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