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Maryland schools begin rolling back in-person learning plans as coronavirus cases rise

With coronavirus cases rising swiftly in Maryland, the prospect that schools will reopen their doors to thousands more students later this month seemed to be diminishing Monday as school systems reconsidered their plans.

Anne Arundel County closed all its in-person classes for small groups of students Friday, delayed the start of a wider expansion of classes, and announced Monday that it will suspend athletics. Harford County Public Schools will be sending most students and teachers home at the end of this week to resume virtual learning after new coronavirus cases in the county spiked to their highest levels since the pandemic began there.

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And Baltimore City school officials said they are now looking at the system’s plan to move forward with reopening for in-person instruction in 44 schools scheduled for next week.

“The district continues to closely monitor the data related to COVID-19 as we determine the next steps for our students, staff and families,” said Andre Riley, a spokesman for the city schools.

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The actions came as coronavirus cases rose dramatically in the state over the past month. On Monday, the statewide positivity test rate rose above 5% for the first time since June as health officials reported the sixth day in a row with more than 1,000 new cases.

The state average for new cases per 100,000 people has climbed to a level where state guidelines recommend “limited or no in-person programs.”

New daily cases range from 12.7 per 100,000 people in Carroll County to 26.4 per 100,000 in the city of Baltimore. The city’s case rate has more than tripled since Oct. 16, spiking well above the statewide average.

Health experts said the state’s rise in cases is concerning and requires quick actions by individuals and officials to tamp down the virus and allow schools to open.

“The easiest prospect for reopening schools is to get the case numbers down from where they are now,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“We as a society need to be making hard choices. We can’t do it all,” said Leana Wen, a visiting professor at George Washington University School of Public Health and former Baltimore City Health Commissioner. “If we are to prioritize schools we need to figure out what the trade-offs are we are willing to make.”

Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan said that schools could remain open. And since ordering schools temporarily closed in March, state superintendent Karen Salmon has not put any restrictions on districts that want to reopen.

Neither the governor’s office nor the Maryland State Department of Education responded to requests for comment Monday about whether schools should reconsider in-person instruction given the recent increase.

The state has left the decision to open schools or remain online to the local school boards and health departments. After pressure from the 24 local superintendents and others, the state did issue recommended guidelines for the coronavirus in August. Those benchmarks say that when the positivity rate is above 5% and the new cases rise above 15 cases per 100,000, school systems should consider limited in-person instruction or closure. In the Baltimore area, only Carroll and Howard counties have remained below those thresholds.

For the time being, Howard County schools are continuing with virtual instruction, with limited small groups coming into school buildings for in-person instruction and support, spokesman Brian Bassett said in an email.

In October, Howard’s Board of Education adopted slightly more stringent health goals than the state for determining when to begin hybrid learning with a mix of virtual and in-person classes. The elected leaders said the positivity rate must be less than or equal to 5% and the 7-day rolling average for new cases per 100,000 must remain below 10 for two consecutive weeks.

Baltimore County Public Schools officials decided last week to postpone a plan to send some students and staff back to four schools for children with disabilities, citing concerns with the region’s rates of COVID-19.

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County school board members voted unanimously Oct. 27 in favor of a measure requiring staff to publish a plan for returning students in kindergarten through second grade to school buildings by Nov. 30. Elected leaders clarified that the plan should be considered flexible and subject to change.

Baltimore County school leaders continue to monitor the data and collaborate with the county health department.

“We have to respect what the data are telling us, and what they are telling us is not good,” schools spokesman Charles Herndon said in an email.

All Harford students now will be returning home for virtual school — with one exception, Superintendent Sean Bulson said Monday.

“We are working on creating spaces for people who don’t have access to internet,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the school systems would close down learning centers that have been a lifeline for thousands of students in the region who needed internet to learn online.

The governor has encouraged Maryland residents to wear face masks, and to social distance to stem the rise in cases, but he has not taken any measures to clamp down on the rise, such as ordering businesses to close.

A close analysis of the data on cases could show where the hotspots of transmission are so that actions could be taken to stem the case increases, Nuzzo said.

“So the question I have is what do we think is driving transmission in our state?” she said.

While state officials have said that small gatherings are a problem, Nuzzo said she hasn’t seen an analysis that shows that.

Nuzzo, whose son would have gone back to Anne Arundel public schools if the plans hadn’t changed last week, believes schools should be the priority. Learning over the internet is not a replacement for in-person school, she said, and students will suffer long-term consequences if schools aren’t able to reopen.

“Our kids have really suffered in all of this and it seems as though they get prioritized last,” she said.

Wen said she believes individuals need to reduce small gatherings and stop having play dates, dinner parties and celebrations.

“What of those informal gatherings are we willing to forgo?” Wen asked.

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While President Trump has portrayed the situation as a choice between locking down everyone or opening every business and school, Wen said there is a moderate middle ground that will work, but it will depend on individual actions. It does no good to close restaurants, she said, if people continue having small dinners indoors with friends.

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Baltimore Sun Media’s S. Wayne Carter Jr. contributed to this article.

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