The large cardboard boxes came one after another off the U-Haul truck. They were filled with 40,000 donated KN95 masks destined for teachers, staff and students in Baltimore City schools in preparation for the coming school year.
“Masks are going to be a constant need, like composition books and pencils,” said Christina Duncan Evans, teacher chapter chair for the Baltimore Teachers Union, who helped unload the boxes.
“They’ll protect everyone from COVID, flu and other infectious diseases,” she said. “If they’re offered, a lot of teachers and students will wear them.”
But in Baltimore and surrounding counties, schools won’t require any kind of masks, at least not to start the school year. Most don’t plan to screen for cases and won’t send students home to quarantine, moves based on federal and state guidance that aim to keep more kids learning at their desks.
Officials acknowledge that the pandemic is not over and preventive measures could change with another big wave of infections, which some public health experts predict.
But for now, all area public school systems are scaling back, though each is doing it a bit differently.
Baltimore City is the only jurisdiction that plans any regular in-school screening of staff and students with no symptoms. Meanwhile, Anne Arundel and other counties plan no regular testing and will send kids who become sick home.
Generally this year, more of the onus will be on staff and students — and their parents — to make decisions about when to mask, test and avoid class.
“The message for our families and employees is clear: If you’re sick, stay home,” said Bob Mosier, Anne Arundel schools spokesman.
The “streamlined” policies, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labeled them, may be a reflection of what the public will tolerate after 2 1/2 years of pandemic measures, but also what is logistically and financially possible.
School officials say they reflect that most staff and students have been vaccinated or infected and have some level of protection from severe illness. There also are more tools now to detect and treat COVID-19.
They also say they have more experience. That’s led some schools to skip measures they didn’t find made much difference in the number of cases found or prevented. For Baltimore County, for example, that includes contact tracing and a screening program.
Schools do need to mind the COVID-19 metrics and be ready if conditions change and cases start to surge in the fall or winter, said Meagan Fitzpatrick, an epidemiologist and assistant professor with the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health.
She said if the goal is to keep kids and teachers in school, officials need to be prepared to step up preventive measures when needed.
“One thing I hope the schools do is communicate with parents that as COVID levels change, their mask guidance and other guidance will need to change,” Fitzpatrick said.
“Sometimes we talk about this as if it’s an all or nothing choice, but really we have to be responsive to change,” she said. “They may need to make masks mandatory when cases rise. They can relax the rules when cases go down.”
The schools’ reopening plans were due Aug. 15 to the Maryland State Department of Education, and officials there said they will be reviewed every six months. Those plans cover school systems’ preventive measures and needs, which can include not just masks and tests, but also air purifiers and cleaning supplies.
The department said in a statement it “continues to monitor the impacts of COVID-19 in schools and provides detailed monthly updates on several metrics including vaccination and infection rates at each board meeting.”
Maryland Department of Health officials issued guidance to the state’s school systems based on CDC advice, which was updated Aug. 11, to de-emphasize quarantining and distancing and to exclude from school those testing positive for five days. State officials say they are “monitoring the CDC’s guidance changes.”
The CDC bases some recommendations on what it deems the risk level of COVID-19 in communities to be, considering not just cases, but how many are serious and require hospitalization. In Maryland, hospitalizations hover around 600, well below the pandemic peak above 3,000 in January.
The CDC considers the Baltimore region to be at a medium-risk level, which calls for high-risk people to wear masks and people exposed to be tested. At a high level, where Montgomery, Prince George’s and some Eastern Shore counties are, the CDC recommends everyone mask indoors. The Prince George’s school system has announced masking will be mandatory as classes begin.
The CDC advice was panned by some public health experts who fear more students and staff will end up missing school with infections and reinfections from the highly contagious omicron variants because cases remain high across the country. Experts say while most children recover, others will get very sick, make family members sick and potentially suffer from longer-lasting symptoms, a condition known as long COVID.
Yet, after years of restrictions, and a lot of missed class time, a national teachers union welcomed less-restrictive measures as a move toward living more normally with the virus and recovering from the tremendous academic and social effects of closing schools.
Some local teachers do want protections and applauded the donated masks.
Nathan Ferrell, who taught in a Baltimore City high school last year, said he found many teachers and students were voluntarily putting on masks when they saw a lot of others getting sick.
“When they had access to masks, many wore them,” he said. “It gave them a sense of safety.”
Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a critical care doctor from Johns Hopkins Medicine, said well-fitting masks provide good protection over hours even when everyone isn’t wearing them. He called them the “low-hanging fruit” among COVID-19 measures.
“Masks keep people safe, they allow us to be physically there, physically present,” said Galiatsatos, co-director of a Hopkins-led organization called Medicine for the Greater Good, which coordinated the mask donation to the Baltimore teachers union along with Hopkins’ Health Education & Training Corps. The masks were donated by the FXB Center for Health & Human Rights at Harvard University and the national nonprofit Project N95.
“We saw how hard Zoom school was for kids, and their parents,” he said, “and masks seem an easy way to balance a return to school.”
Galiatsatos, noting the costs, said the groups will continue looking for donations and providing masks to teachers during the year.
At least some of the reductions of preventive measures were due to their costs. The Maryland Department of Health reports it has just $8.8 million of its federal testing dollars left uncommitted out of $182 million it was granted last year. Area school systems have until the end of September to apply for funding.
State education and health officials plan to distribute rapid tests to the schools that request them ahead of classes starting later this month.
Also ahead of school, Gov. Larry Hogan has asked parents to get their children vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19. Hogan declared August “Immunization Awareness Month” and encouraged not just COVID shots, but also routine vaccinations, many of which were missed by school-age kids during the pandemic.
Maryland has a relatively high COVID vaccination rate, and for the first time this school year, all school-age students are eligible for those shots. Children aged 5 to 17, however, remain the least covered group, with just over 60% fully vaccinated.
When school starts, here is what the public school system leaders in the Baltimore region say they have planned:
In Baltimore City, public schools will continue screening students for the virus, but every other week instead of weekly, due to the costs. Officials will discontinue contact tracing and no longer require students to quarantine after an exposure.
Masking will be optional in most settings, but classes or groups exposed must wear a mask and take a COVID test to remain in the classroom. Once students who test positive have completed a five-day isolation, they may return to class with a mask until Day 10.
“There’s an isolation policy if you test positive and that’s it,” said Cleo Hirsch, who leads the city schools’ schools COVID response efforts. “Everyone else should be in school.”
Baltimore County schools also are discontinuing contact tracing and a screening program after data collected last year did not show a significant value, said Debbie Somerville, the schools’ director of health services.
The county school system will require masking only after students return from a five-day isolation period. Students who wish to return to school without a mask following infection must show they have tested negative for the virus.
“I think we’re in a transition time between looking at COVID as something very special … and a complete endemic response where nothing is different,” Somerville said. “The number of people missing school will be lower this year.”
Carroll County schools will not require masking this fall, said director of student services Karl Streaker. The school system will consider changes to its policy on a case-by-case basis in consultation with the Carroll County Health Department.
Harford County school buildings will be mask-optional this fall. Diagnostic testing is provided in all schools for students or staff who become ill during the day.
The system’s plan for the school year includes a contingency for schools to move temporarily to virtual instruction if needed.
And the system is offering a $500 incentive to employees who have received their vaccination series and booster in hopes of reducing staff absenteeism.
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Anne Arundel schools have “no plans for mandated masking or testing at this time,” said Bob Mosier, schools spokesman. “We are continuing our conversations with the Anne Arundel County Department of Health and continuing to take guidance from them.”
He said symptomatic staff and students will be sent home, per guidance from the state.
“We always encourage parents to keep their sick children home from school or ask them to pick them up if at school,” added Megan Pringle, a county health department spokeswoman. “We will be offering COVID rapid testing in the health rooms.”
Howard County will not have a universal masking mandate and will not provide mass COVID testing opportunities this fall.
Staff and students who are considered close contacts with someone infected with COVID may continue to attend school regardless of vaccine status, provided they do not have symptoms.
Individuals who have tested positive for the virus may return to school after five days, but will be asked to mask until 10 days have passed or they can produce two negative rapid antigen tests taken 48 hours apart. Those who remain home for the full 10 days do not need a negative test to return to class.
Student-athletes are no longer required to provide vaccination status when registering for sports.