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Baltimore City closes Belair-Edison School after staff quarantined following positive COVID-19 tests

Baltimore City decided to close one of its schools Thursday when weekly pool testing turned up at least four positive cases of COVID-19, and required the quarantining of a number of key staff.

The positive tests at the Belair-Edison School in Northeast Baltimore were among 14 city schools that reported positive test results this week. The district said Belair-Edison School is expected to resume in-person classes Friday.

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Testing of all students and staff in reopened buildings has turned up an alarming number of positive cases, according to Baltimore’s teachers union.

“It affirms that the district wasn’t ready to expand in-person learning as safely as it could,” said Baltimore Teachers Union president Diamonte Brown. She said the number of cases the city schools are reporting has risen dramatically since officials began increasing the number of students allowed back in buildings.

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In most cases each of the 14 schools that reported positive test results had only one positive pool test or one individual in the building who had tested positive out of several thousand who had been tested, according to school system officials. Last week, the numbers were slightly lower.

But system officials say positive test results mean they are identifying and isolating those people with the virus quickly so that the virus doesn’t spread, either in the school or in the community.

The testing shows “that school is a very safe place to be right now,” said Cleo L. Hirsch, director of priority initiatives for the city schools. “We will catch it and isolate it before anyone has a chance to be exposed.”

The school system is employing two types of tests. In its high schools, every student and staff member will take an individual saliva test weekly.

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In its elementary schools, pool testing is administered weekly. Each of a group of pupils will swab the inside of the tip of their noses for five seconds. The teacher will do the same, Hirsch said. All the swabs are grouped together for testing.

But added to that pool will be some other adults in the building, such as cafeteria workers, school nurses or the principal. So each pool test is likely to have samples from more than one adult.

That cluster of swabs undergoes one test.

The system chose the pool swab test because it is quick, easy and less disruptive to classroom learning than other tests, she said. Students can swab their noses while they sing a song. It doesn’t hurt.

The tests are high quality and have a low number of false positives, according to the company that processes the tests, but they do come with some other issues.

When there is a pool test that is positive, all 20 to 25 people who are part of the pool must then get an individual COVID-19 test and quarantine until the test comes back. According to the school system and the testing company, usually only one person will have a positive test, but the remainder of the students in that pool must be quarantined for 14 days to make sure they don’t come down with the virus.

Schools are likely to have rolling quarantines while the testing is going on.

Christina Agapakis, a biologist and creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks Inc., which makes the tests for the school system, said most districts have seen a decline in the number of positive tests as time goes on because the testing is slowing the spread of the disease.

Baltimore City is the only district in the area doing regular testing of people who do not display symptoms. Finding cases of people who don’t know they have the disease is “exactly how it is supposed to be working so that we can stop the pandemic,” Agapakis said. Schools can become powerful vehicles for reducing the cases. “The school becomes a hub for the community health.”

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