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Baltimore City schools to mandate COVID vaccine for high school athletes; officials hint that employee mandate may follow

Baltimore City Public Schools will require a COVID-19 vaccination for all high school student-athletes before the winter and spring sports seasons, with officials hinting that they are considering a similar mandate for all employees.

High school student-athletes must be vaccinated Nov. 1 ahead of the Nov. 15 start of the winter sports season. Winter sports competition begins Dec. 6. School officials are not requiring vaccinations for athletes participating in fall sports because the season is underway, although students are strongly encouraged to get inoculated, the announcement states.

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Officials said the precaution will keep students safe while allowing them to play with minimal disruption.

Student-athletes who are not vaccinated must quarantine for 10 days if they come into close contact with an individual who is COVID-positive. By comparison, students who are fully vaccinated will not have to quarantine if they are symptom-free, officials said in the announcement.

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“We’ve already seen that quarantines of close contacts on athletic teams can mean that large numbers of team members can be quarantined at once — potentially resulting in forfeited games,” the announcement states.

The announcement also disclosed that system leaders are hoping to expand the mandate to all employees. Neighboring Howard and Baltimore counties have required all staff members to get vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests.

City officials said they were working with union partners on details and will provide an update in the coming days.

While vaccination is not currently required for employees this fall, city schools required all school-based staff to be vaccinated or participate in weekly COVID testing last spring. According to the system, 85% of teachers and 92% of principals are vaccinated.

Edmondson-Westside High School boys basketball coach Darnell Dantzler said he started receiving calls from concerned parents and players shortly after the city made its announcement.

Some parents were surprised by the news, particularly given that fall athletes weren’t required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Dantzler said. Others were concerned about potential side effects from vaccination, such as rare instances of blood clotting in patients who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Dantzler said.

Others wanted to know if Dantzler had gotten the vaccine, and how it went, he said.

“I’m sure we’re going to have some [student-athletes] which still don’t want to get it,” Dantzler said. “And unfortunately they won’t be able to play.”

Some of his players, particularly seniors, are worried about what it would mean to miss another season of basketball, he said.

“I will encourage them to do it,” Dantzler said. “I support whatever decision that each individual makes.”

Patterson High School boys basketball coach Harry Martin, who said he was “fully in support of the vaccination mandate,” said he already had been encouraging his players to get vaccinated against COVID-19. He estimated about half his team has done so.

”The other ones that are not vaccinated, we’re going to double back efforts saying ‘Hey this is a mandate. If you want to have a season, if you don’t want to have stoppages, we need to get vaccinated,’” Martin said.

Martin himself has been fully vaccinated since February, he said, and noted it has come up in discussions with his players.

“I tried to really take the emotions out of it because it’s a heated debate nationally,” he said. “And I told them I don’t want to get into a debate with you or your parents over this and that. I just want to stick to the facts in terms of the science.”

Data from Maryland’s Department of Health shows that less than 0.34% of fully vaccinated Marylanders have gone on to test positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, about 94% of those hospitalized for COVID-19 or killed by the virus in Maryland since January 2021 have been unvaccinated, according to the health department.

So far, about 68% of Maryland’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Children between 12 and 17, the youngest cohort eligible for vaccination, have lagged behind other age groups. About 66.7% of them had received at least one dose as of Tuesday, according to the state, compared to 90.9% of seniors over 65, Maryland’s most vaccinated age group.

Generally, vaccination in Baltimore City has lagged behind surrounding jurisdictions. State data shows 50.8% of city residents are at least partially vaccinated, compared to 59% of Baltimore County residents. Nearby Howard County, meanwhile, has the highest rate in the state, with 70% of residents having received at least one shot.

Baltimore Sun reporter Glenn Graham contributed to this article.

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