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Education

Rising COVID-19 cases in Maryland schools lead to temporary virtual classes and canceled games

Howard County schools canceled all athletics and extracurriculars until into January, a Baltimore city high school reportedly shifted to virtual classes for a couple of days this week and a Harford County elementary school has seen one in 10 students infected with COVID-19.

Fifteen of Maryland’s 24 public school systems, including those in the Baltimore region, are facing a surge in coronavirus cases, reporting to the state this week their highest counts yet for the academic year. Schools are canceling events and temporarily moving classes online in response.

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Since the beginning of December, the rolling two-week count of cases attributed to school outbreaks has spiked 60% statewide and 85% in the Baltimore area, which includes Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. The state defines an outbreak as two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases within a 14-day period spread among students or staff who are not household contacts.

The rise in cases comes amid an apparent surge in COVID-19 in Maryland and around the nation attributed to the increase in indoor activities as the weather turns cold, holiday gathering and relaxation of mask mandates and social distancing requirements. It also comes a new, possibly more contagious variant known as omicron has started spreading rapidly.

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The number of COVID-related hospitalizations in Maryland has more than doubled since mid-November, but the number of new cases and deaths hasn’t been updated since Dec. 3 due to a cyberattack on the Maryland Department of Health that crippled its ability to track and update COVID-19 data on the state’s dashboard.

The health department, however, was able to update data for outbreak-associated cases in schools Wednesday, said spokesman Andy Owen in an email.

The updated data revealed several Baltimore-area schools atop the state’s outbreak list, including Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Harford County, which has an enrollment of about 1,100 and reported 110 cases this week. It is the state’s only public school to report more than 100 cases.

Harford officials have canceled after-school activities and field trips at the Fallston school, and limited movement between classrooms. It remains open and teaching continues in person.

Chesapeake and Northeast high schools in Anne Arundel County also were close to the top of the list with 98 cases and 51 cases, respectively. Both schools each have an enrollment of about 1,380 students this fall.

Anne Arundel officials said they did not plan to change in-person activities, including sports, concerts and extracurriculars. Individual schools may choose to adopt such changes, school system spokesman Bob Mosier said. An announcement could come later in the week should the Anne Arundel County school board, which is scheduled to meet Wednesday evening, decide to take action.

Howard County’s Hammond High School, which enrolled about 1,300 students in 2020, also reported 60 positive cases, according to the dashboard.

As of Wednesday morning, more than 3,700 students in Howard County’s 57,000-student system were in quarantine, alongside 146 staff members, according to the system’s dashboard. Some 300 new COVID-19 cases were reported this week.

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As a result, the school system made the decision Wednesday to postpone all athletic contests and other extracurriculars until January due to “the rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases impacting several HCPSS high schools,” officials told families.

Some Howard coaches expressed frustration and concern for their students’ well being amid the cancellations.

Longtime Marriotts Ridge wrestling coach Jason Conley said this week that he “felt horrible” for the seniors, who already missed out on athletics during their junior year because of the pandemic.

“I believe the mental damage is worse than COVID,” Conley said in a text. “Wrestling is what got me through high school.”

The Baltimore City school system, which serves about 85,000 students, reported just 130 cases this period. The figure is more than double the count taken at the beginning of the month when the school system posted its third lowest total since the first month of school.

The system did not appear to have large outbreaks at specific schools like other districts. Beechfield Elementary/Middle School, which educates about 600 students, counted 14 cases this week, the highest in the system.

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However, Dunbar High School recently learned of eight positive cases at the school and, as a proactive measure, moved class online for all students Wednesday and Thursday. After school activities and sports were also canceled. During the building closure, the school will undergo electrostatic cleaning in all classroom and spaces associated with the positive COVID cases, officials said.

City school officials did not respond to questions specifically about Dunbar, but said in a statement that cases were rising after Halloween and Thanksgiving, part of the wave that health experts predicted this winter.

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“Our asymptomatic testing protocols continue to assist in mitigating spread in our schools by identify positive persons who are not currently exhibiting symptoms,” spokeswoman Gwendolyn Chambers said in the statement. “We continue to practice key mitigation strategies including asymptomatic and symptomatic testing, masking, and air filtration.”

In Baltimore County schools, weekly case counts also more than doubled to 420 in the week following Thanksgiving and increased to 439 during the second week of December. The school system serves about 111,000 students.

Baltimore County school leaders are taking a targeted approach to quarantines and closures but haven’t found widespread evidence of the virus spreading inside school buildings, spokeswoman Debbie Somerville said.

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“What’s different in the past two weeks is the volume of cases,” she said.

Between holiday gatherings, the availability of vaccines and “plain old COVID fatigue,” some people have felt safer this fall coming into close contact with others. And all of that could contribute to more positive cases, Somerville said.

Still, Baltimore County school leaders have increased their communication with the local health department from once or twice a week to multiple times a day, she said.

Baltimore Sun editors Steve Earley and Tim Schwartz and reporter Christine Condon, Capital Gazette reporter Rachael Pacella and Baltimore Sun Media reporters Callan Tansill-Suddath and Brent Kennedy contributed to this article.


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