State Board of Education Will Revisit Student Quarantine Policy and Mask Mandate

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Unsplash.com photo by Kelly Sikkema.

In the last month, 6,500 more Maryland public school students tested positive for COVID-19 and 31,800 more students have been quarantined due to close contact with COVID-19, according to data released by the Maryland State Department of Education on Tuesday. 

The data was reported by local school systems to MSDE. Since the start of the school year, a total of 10,800 students have tested positive for the coronavirus and 49,300 students have been quarantined.

As of Oct. 20, the St. Mary’s public school system had 353 new positive cases of COVID among students in the last 30 days, the highest number of new positive cases of all 24 local jurisdictions. Meanwhile, Baltimore City Public Schools had 43 new positive student cases of COVID and Talbot County public schools had zero.  

In Maryland, there is no standardized rule on when students should be quarantined and for how long, but the Maryland Department of Health and MSDE recommend 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 unless they test positive, according to the state guidance. 

But the Carroll County and Harford County public school systems recently modified their policies and no longer require students to quarantine if they have no COVID symptoms and were wearing a mask while in close contact with someone who tested positive. 

State Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said he is working with Dr. Jinlene Chan, the deputy secretary of public health services, to modify quarantine policy recommendations for all public schools but “we’re just not there yet.” 

Earlier this year, the State Board of Education voted to approve an emergency regulation requiring universal masking in all Maryland public school buildings for 180 days — around the end of February or early March. In September, state lawmakers approved the emergency regulation, which the board can review monthly and rescind earlier.

On Tuesday, Board President Clarence Crawford said that the panel should make a “reasoned decision and approach as to how we should go forward” at its next meeting in December, when there will be more clarity about vaccination rates and time to get input from the public. The board will also review its options related to the emergency regulation with legal counsel during a closed session.

Children ages 5 to 11 may be eligible for COVID vaccines as soon as next week. Choudhury said he met recently with local superintendents and the Maryland Department of Health to prepare for the approval of vaccinations for younger students and develop a strategy. 

The Maryland Department of Health tracks positive cases and COVID related deaths by age groups every day. As of Oct. 26, there have been four confirmed deaths for children ages 0 to 9 and seven confirmed deaths for children ages 10 to 19, according to MDH’s COVID-19 dashboard. Across all age groups, there were 10,600 confirmed deaths and 614 hospitalized from COVID-19 in Maryland, according to the dashboard Tuesday. 

While most students returned to school in person this year, 25,000 students are enrolled in virtual programs across the state. 

After the first day of school, 861 students left virtual programs, according to MSDE. This drop can be linked to the statewide mask mandate enacted in September, a desire to take specific courses that were not available in virtual programs and increased vaccinations among family members and older students, said Valerie Emrich, director of digital teaching and learning for MSDE. 

But while Prince George’s County Public Schools had 153 fewer students enrolled in virtual programs since Sept. 14, 328 more students enrolled in virtual programs in Baltimore County, according to MSDE. Across all jurisdictions, the state saw an increase of 211 students in virtual programs since Sept. 14. 

Rachel McCusker, the teacher representative on the board, expressed concern with student-to-teacher ratios in virtual programs. “We have more students, so do we have more educators or are we upping class sizes, some of which were already a concern?” McCusker asked. 

Data on staff numbers for virtual programs will be ready in November, said Emrich.

Half of the students enrolled in virtual programs are Black and 20% are Hispanic, according to MSDE.

Shawn Bartley, a board member, asked Choudhury what school systems were doing to ensure that racial achievement gaps aren’t exacerbated by virtual learning programs. 

Choudhury said that only students who proved that they could be successful in a virtual learning environment were allowed to participate in virtual programs this year. Local school systems also have safeguards that allow them to pull students back to in-person classrooms if they struggle in virtual programs, Choudhury said. 

However, some school districts, such as Carroll County and Garrett County, did not offer a virtual option this academic year. Jean Halle, vice president of the state board, asked if students could participate in virtual programs in adjacent counties.

The Eastern Shore of Maryland Educational Consortium, for example, offers virtual programs for students living in Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s, Somerset, Talbot, Wicomico and Worcester counties. 

Choudhury said other counties could come together to create a coordinated virtual program, but at this time, Carroll and Garrett counties are not considering launching virtual programs. 

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