Since the school year began, more than 17,000 students in Maryland public schools have been quarantined due to close contact with COVID-19, according to a presentation by the state’s department of education to the state’s school board Tuesday.
School districts in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore counties each have had more than 1,000 students quarantined.
Prince George’s County had the largest number of staff and students quarantined — 470 staff and 3,008 students. Only Prince George’s had more than 100 staff members quarantined.
Local school systems reported their data to the Maryland State Department of Education.
And more than 4,200 Maryland public school students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the school year. Harford County had the highest number of students — 1,019 students — test positive while St. Mary’s County had 337 positive cases among students and Baltimore County had 304 positive cases.
In Maryland, there is no standardized rule on when students should be quarantined and for how long, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that unvaccinated close contacts quarantine regardless of their test results for 14 days after exposure. Fully vaccinated close contacts do not need to quarantine if they have no symptoms, according to CDC guidance.
Students in Northwest Middle School in Carroll County left school and returned to online classes for two days due to a COVID-19 outbreak last week, making it the only public school in the state that has had to close temporarily so far, according to State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury.
State officials approved an emergency statewide mask mandate in public schools that went into effect on Sept. 14. Only two of Maryland’s 24 school districts — Carroll County and Somerset County — were not already requiring masks to be worn indoors since the beginning of the school year.
All but one school system reported that their COVID-19 prevention strategies are aligned to current CDC guidelines, but late Tuesday, MSDE spokeswoman Lora Rakowski said that she was not sure which school system that was. However, all school systems are following MSDE, Maryland Department of Health, and local health guidance, according to MSDE.
As a part of monthly reassessment of the statewide mask mandate, the State Board of Education will update monthly the status of virtual programs and transmission rates in public schools, Choudhury said.
Only Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore counties require vaccinations for their staff, but most school systems reported high vaccination rates among teachers. In Cecil and Talbot counties, 85% of teachers are vaccinated and 76% are vaccinated in Garrett County. Some school districts are still collecting data and did not report figures, but Dorchester County had the lowest reported teacher vaccination rate at 48%.
Each school system uses its own models for teaching students who are in quarantine. For instance, students in Baltimore County are assigned asynchronous work, allowing them to work at their own pace and not have to attend online classes live, and they have the opportunity to work with a tutor during after school hours if they are quarantining at home. Students in Calvert County in third grade and older can attend class virtually in real time. Prince George’s County students are given work packets and other asynchronous learning activities.
Seventeen school systems mark students in quarantine as excused absences while seven school systems count them as present if they meet certain standards, such as completing assigned work or meeting with tutors.
Board member Warner I. Sumpter said he is concerned about students in poverty who are quarantined and may not have good online access but are marked as absent. Although there might be packets that can be picked up, these students may not have transportation, he added.
Choudhury said he primarily cares that there is evidence of learning when students are counted as present.
“I don’t like wasted days,” Choudhury said. “Even if virtual learning is not the best environment, there should be evidence of learning.”
He said MSDE is working to develop guidance for local school systems on how to decide whether students in quarantine are counted as present.
Across the state, 24,736 students, or 3% of the student population, are enrolled in virtual learning, according to MSDE. However, more than 46,000 students expressed interest in the option of a virtual program this year.
Students not attending school in person will not be exempted from taking the annual statewide assessment, Choudhury said.
Last spring, the Maryland State Board of Education delayed statewide standardized testing until this fall. The U.S. Department of Education gave states flexibility to delay and shorten statewide exams as a result of the pandemic.
“I will not be creating a waiver to get away from testing,” Choudhury said. “We need baseline data.”