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Large COVID-19 outbreaks afflict three Baltimore County private schools

Three Orthodox Jewish day schools in Baltimore County have reported large numbers of COVID-19 cases in the past two months, leading one middle school to shut down and move to virtual learning for a week.

The outbreaks are far larger than others seen in public or private schools since the state’s mandatory reporting requirements began in October. County health officials declined to detail what measures have been taken at each school to contain the outbreaks, which began shortly after Thanksgiving and continued through last week, but said they have been working with the schools.

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The Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, a century-old, kindergarten through 12th grade school in Pikesville, had 62 cases inside the school Feb. 3, according to Maryland’s COVID-19 school dashboard. That number was by far the most cases reported in a single school since October. The school will be closed for two weeks, including one week of virtual instruction and a week of vacation.

The next highest number of cases was at Bais Yaakov Eva Winer High School, a girls school with about 425 students on Smith Avenue, which had 45 cases.

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The Torah Institute in Owings Mills had 26 cases Jan. 27, the state reported. Efforts to reach Torah Institute leaders were unsuccessful.

At the Talmudical Academy “most of these cases have been in our middle school, which we switched to virtual learning last week,” said Rabbi Yaacov Cohen, executive director. “We hope to see a significant reduction in cases upon the return to school. Working with the health department, we have also adopted several additional mitigation steps moving forward.”

Cohen did not address what additional actions have been taken to reduce cases.

He said the school had “been extremely diligent” since the beginning of the pandemic in trying to control the virus.

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Sandy L. Nissel, the CEO of Bais Yaakov, said in an email that the school is working with the health department.

“Our assessment is that spread in general does not occur in school, but rather at home,” he said.

He added that he believes the rate of spread might seem smaller if measured on a per pupil basis.

“Large public schools, as you know, do not have cases because they are not open,” Nissel said.

Baltimore County Health Officer Dr. Gregory Wm. Branch said his department’s staff visit any school where cases are discovered and make recommendations to prevent spread. Branch did not address the specifics of the outbreaks at the three private schools.

Speaking about school cases in general, he said that in some instances his department has recommended schools take longer vacation breaks so they can tamp down the virus.

Each Wednesday, the state updates its dashboard with a listing of coronavirus cases linked to classmates and staff in schools. The state does not report every case where a student or staff member contracts the virus, but only cases where there is contact within a school building between students or staff from different households.

School leaders like Nissel point out that the numbers on the state website reflect the number of cases in their schools — and not cases where students or staff members caught the virus from someone else in school.

Branch confirmed it is often difficult to definitively know whether cases of COVID-19 have been caused by exposure in a school or elsewhere.

But the number of cases in each of the Baltimore County schools far exceeds those at many other schools in the state. Most of the time when a school shows up in the state’s tracking, the school has reported five or fewer cases. Rarely have the numbers risen above a dozen cases at an individual school. Fewer than three dozen private and public schools reported cases on the dashboard last week.

Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, director of Agudath Israel of Maryland, said he believes the spread of the virus reflects the insular nature of the Orthodox Jewish community with its large families concentrated in certain neighborhoods. He said the community in Baltimore is taking the virus seriously and using precautions to prevent spread.

“We have had higher numbers and part of that is due to the over familiarity with each other. You have a lot of large families. On any given block, most of the homes are members of the Jewish community who are interacting with each other,” said Sadwin, who has been in regular contact with the heads of the schools.

Sadwin contends that in schools and synagogues the rules of masking and social distancing are being followed.

He cited his family as an example of how the spread has occurred. When a relative’s family visited from out of state over the holidays, everyone sat together for a Shabbat meal. His family, with their six children, were infected as well as others at the table. Everyone got the virus and had to quarantine, he said.

“People are COVID weary,” said Sadwin, adding that the precautions need to be reinforced.

“We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be careless ...,” he said. “The message we have tried to reiterate is that taking things in a more lax manner is harming the community and putting people in harm’s way.”

Branch said there are a number of factors that could put members of the Orthodox Jewish community at increased risk, similar to other demographic groups.

“If you have multi-generational people living in your home and you are going out to the religious events and you are doing a lot of travel, then there can be a lot of spread,” he said.

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