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As Maryland schools prepare to open, some parents say anxiety over COVID-19 is higher than ever

With the first day of kindergarten around the corner for Vera Ferrer’s daughter, the 5-year-old is excited and already asking to eat out of her new sequined lunch box.

The Catonsville mom has tried to share her daughter Carolina’s elation, insisting that the family perform the ritual of buying school supplies from a store instead of ordering online. But lately, Ferrer has struggled to stifle her growing anxiety over sending her oldest child — still too young for a COVID-19 vaccination — into the classroom Monday.

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The family enrolled Carolina for in-person instruction months ago, before an announcement from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting vaccinated people infected with the more contagious delta variant may be just as contagious as unvaccinated people.

“A lot can happen in two months, and it did,” Ferrer said.

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Throughout the spring and summer, Maryland school administrators, teachers and parents spoke of pivoting their focus for the 2021-22 school year to recovery. They hoped for a return to normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted public education for hundreds of thousands of students.

But as cases have become more prevalent locally, some parents say they are losing confidence in the plans for fall semester and they’re anxious about sending their children into classrooms at a time when cases are on the rise.

Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties are set to begin the school year Monday, with Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties welcoming students back Sept. 8, following the Labor Day and Rosh Hashana holidays.

Leticia Daniels, left, helps Mya Lee, 6, pick out a free backpack Thursday at Middle Branch Park, as her mother, Alisha Carter, second from left, looks on and Mya’s twin, Mariah, waits her turn. They attended Mayor Brandon Scott’s backpack giveaway, which was held in partnership with AFRAM.
Leticia Daniels, left, helps Mya Lee, 6, pick out a free backpack Thursday at Middle Branch Park, as her mother, Alisha Carter, second from left, looks on and Mya’s twin, Mariah, waits her turn. They attended Mayor Brandon Scott’s backpack giveaway, which was held in partnership with AFRAM. (Amy Davis)

Five of the region’s school systems adopted masking mandates on campuses, with Carroll County’s school board leaving the virus mitigation tactic optional. Then Thursday, the state board of education approved a statewide mask requirement. It will take effect if approved by a joint General Assembly committee that meets Sept. 14.

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In addition, Howard and Baltimore counties require employees to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing for the disease.

Officials hope these strategies and more will help schools remain safe and open for students — some of who have not seen a classroom in more than a year.

For healthy children, the risk of death from COVID remains low, according to CDC data, similar to the flu and less than the risk of accidental death from common activities, such as riding in a car or swimming. Of the more than 9,700 Marylanders who have died from COVID, 11 have been age 19 or younger.

But children constitute a larger share of the state’s COVID cases as more adults have been vaccinated. For some parents, the now-dominant delta variant has created uncertainty about what they thought they knew about the virus’ short and long-term risks.

Public resistance to vaccinations and to the use of masks dashed hopes that the academic year could begin without the threat of outbreaks hanging over school systems, said Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises.

“It is disappointing that our nation has not come together to make our schools safe for all children,” she said.

The city school system has some of the most sophisticated testing and safety precautions of any district in the state, Santelises said. About 80% of teachers and 90% of principals are vaccinated, and the teachers and staff are enthusiastic about the start of the year.

“The overwhelming majority of young people want to be back in school and need to be back in school,” she said.

In recent trips to neighborhoods around the city, Santelises said, she has heard a consistent message: “They are ready to be back. You guys have to be ready to care for the kids.”

As important as reading and math are, she said, the priority of teachers and administrators will be to take care of the social and emotional health of children.

Social development was also a factor for Ferrer when she and her husband decided around the end of June to send Carolina to Westowne Elementary School for the fall. The family had noticed that the soon-to-be kindergartner, who receives occupational therapy and speech services through the school system, had trouble communicating clearly through the computer.

“I needed to sit with her and be prepared to translate, whereas being in-person allows her more independence,” Ferrer said. “When she is face-to-face with someone, she will find a way to get her point across.”

While Ferrer and her husband are vaccinated, their primary concern is that Carolina and their 4-year-old son, Lucas, could come down with COVID-19. If given the choice now, Ferrer said she would switch her daughter to online learning for the school year.

The deadline for Baltimore County parents to enroll children in the system’s virtual program passed July 2. School administrators have pledged the system will not close schools unless ordered to do so by county or state leaders.

“We’ve been asked to extend a lot of patience and understanding toward the school system because of the pandemic, because no one saw it coming,” Ferrer said. “But having that deadline in place and no way to get around it, it just feels like we don’t get that [understanding] in return.”

Baltimore County parent Jasmine Annecharico said she is “completely petrified” by start of the school year. The Parkton mother, who is sending her fifth and seventh graders into the classroom soon, was alarmed to learn Tuesday that County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. reinstated a local state of emergency amid a spike in coronavirus cases.

“[The county executive] just declared a state of emergency and we still have to put the kids on the bus Monday,” Annecharico said. “It seems dystopian to me. My mind is boggled.”

Annecharico would enroll her children in online school if she still had the option, but said parents aren’t being given a choice. Circumstances have changed, she said, but her options remain the same.

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“Either you unenroll them or you feed them to the wolves,” she said of her children.

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Despite the pandemic’s latest wave of cases, some educators and parents are adamant that the benefits to students attending school in person with multiple mitigation tactics may outweigh the risks. Schools often function as social safety nets for children and their families by providing meals, health services and emotional support.

Jamilla Fort, a teacher leader at Cecil Elementary School in Baltimore City, has weighed the pros and cons of holding school in person during another wave of COVID-19 cases across the region and settled on the opinion that students belong in classrooms. She trusts guidance from the CDC that says children should be back in school.

“At the end of the day, I see the big picture is that we need kids back in our building,” Fort said.

Fort worries especially about Black children and other students of color who may not have access to the resources they need while learning from home, she said.

“It is life and death for them to be at school, for some of them,” Fort said. “It is their safe haven, they are making meaningful connections. ... I want them in school for that.”

Anecdotally, Ford said she and other teachers cannot wait to reconnect with students.

“We signed up for this job for nothing other than teaching children,” Fort said. “Personally, I am bored sitting in a chair sitting at home. This is a performance career.”

In more rural pockets of the region, where there has been some resistance to mitigation tactics such as masking, some parents were frustrated that state leaders had failed to intervene.

Meagen Simonsen, a Baltimore City school counselor and the parent of two Carroll County elementary school students, spent weeks advocating for a mask mandate, fearful that with the rise in the infection rate among children and the limited number of pediatric beds in Maryland hospitals, her children would not be safe returning to school. She wrote letters to the governor, the state board of education and her elected officials. The state board voted Thursday to require masks in schools across the state.

Her children, she said, are going to be in buildings with all unvaccinated students.

“That is a hotbed of infection. I am very concerned about [their] safety,” she said earlier in the week.

After the mandate passed, she was relieved.

“I feel much safer with my children returning with everyone masked. They are excited to be returning,” she said.

Back in Catonsville, Ferrer has decided to put less weight on the pandemic-related predictions she used to hear about for the fall and spring semester. She plans to monitor case counts at Carolina’s elementary school and is preparing her daughter for a scenario where she must stay home from school during her kindergarten year.

“It’s starting to feel like it’s not something we can wait out anymore,” Ferrer said of the pandemic. “We have to accept that we don’t know what the future is going to be.”

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