More than 4,000 Maryland public school students have tested positive for COVID in the first several weeks of school and another 16,500 have been quarantined because they came in close contact with someone who had COVID-19, according to data released by the Maryland State Department of Education Tuesday.
The COVID cases and those students quarantined still represented a small portion of the more than 882,000 students enrolled in Maryland public schools, but it brought into sharp focus the large numbers of students who must learn from home during a school year that is still far from normal.
The data was reported by school systems to the Maryland State Department of Education and was the first assessment of what effect the pandemic is having on learning 18 months after schools abruptly closed in March 2020. The data is cumulative through Sept. 22, and so only includes a few weeks of school for many students.
School systems reported 4,042 cases of the virus, which includes 550 cases where the virus spread within a school.
Of the school systems in the Baltimore region, Baltimore City reported 220 students quarantined compared to more than 1,000 in each of the surrounding counties.
Baltimore County had 1,163 students quarantined, Anne Arundel had 1,512, Carroll had 1,221, Harford had 1,113 and Howard had 1,341. The school systems have widely different total enrollments. Baltimore County has about 115,000 students compared to Carroll’s roughly 24,000 students.
Some 784 staff members were quarantined and 681 staff have gotten the virus, the state reported.
City school system teachers reported one of the highest vaccination rates in the state, more than 85%.
Each school district has slightly different rules for when students should be quarantined, but in general students who are not vaccinated must quarantine if they have been in close contact for more than 15 minutes with a student who tested positive. The contact could be anywhere in a school building or on a bus. Quarantines generally last between seven to 14 days depending on the conditions of the contact and the school system rules.
Masks have been mandatory in Maryland public schools since last week, but every county except Carroll County required masks from the beginning of school.
Carroll County is the only district in the state to close a school when the number of quarantined students rose to more than 200. The school stayed shut for two days.
Many school systems are reporting cases on their websites, but not all are reporting quarantines. Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said he is encouraging school districts to post as much detailed data as possible.
The data was presented to the Maryland State Board of Education at its Tuesday meeting, and board members expressed concern about how much education quarantined students have been getting.
Brig. General Warner I. Sumpter, who is a board member, said he is particularly concerned about economically disadvantaged students who may not have access to internet or a computer, and may not live close enough to the school to pick up a packet of information.
“Are there students in quarantine who aren’t being served?” he said.
State officials reported that 21 school systems are posting assignments online, some are providing paper packets and other resources, and some are providing small group tutoring sessions online after school.
Rachel McCusker, a board member and teacher from Carroll County, said the teachers have been given additional work because of the quarantines.
“Most of the strategies are time consuming,” she said.
Teachers have to prepare for lessons in-person and juggle students who are at home because of the quarantines, she explained. Teachers are no longer teaching in-person and online concurrently.
“We are no better off than we were last year,” she said. “I don’t have an answer about what to do about it.”
While teacher salaries are expected to rise in the next several years, McCusker said it will not help retain teachers who have “no work-life balance.”