With more than two weeks of school under their belts, Baltimore-area school districts are beginning to see COVID-19 cases emerge in larger numbers — forcing hundreds of students into quarantine and prompting systems to alter plans and cancel events.
Parents have been forced to rearrange their schedules to care for kids at home. Those who haven’t say they are dreading a call they feel is inevitable. And what if their child needs to quarantine more than once?
So far, schools here have not reached the level of cases experienced in districts across the country that began the school year earlier. Across the South, dozens of school systems have halted in-person classes, according to data gathered by online event tracking firm Burbio. And some districts, such as one north of Charlotte, North Carolina, have reported more than 10% of students quarantined at a single time.
While COVID cases are starting to filter through soccer teams and history classes, cafeterias and school buses, parents and students in Maryland say they’re overjoyed to be returning to full schools for the first time in months, despite the storm cloud overhead.
Stephanie Brown is among the parents who have already had to make adjustments. When she heard that her sixth and eighth graders would have to stay home from Northwest Middle School in Carroll County after a spike in cases, she was hardly surprised.
”It really wasn’t frustration and it definitely wasn’t shock,” the Westminster mom said.
But she said she thought school district officials “could have handled this better” by requiring students to wear masks or offering the option of online classes. Masks were mandated in schools statewide last week; while other districts required them earlier, Carroll didn’t follow suit until the state mandate.
The Taneytown middle school that Brown’s children attend closed Tuesday and Wednesday after 18 people tested positive. For each of those positive tests, another 15 to 20 close contacts typically have to quarantine, as well, said county health officer Ed Singer.
In Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties, the percentage of students quarantining due to a positive test or exposure hovered between 1% and 2%, or between 900 and 1,500 students, according to the most recent data, posted online Friday. Baltimore City’s rate was lower, with 423 students quarantining, or 0.5% of the student population, as of Wednesday, the latest date for which the city provided data.
The highest rates in the Baltimore area Friday were in Carroll and Harford counties, with about 5% and 3.8%, respectively. That’s about 1,200 to 1,400 students quarantined in each district.
Enacting stringent quarantine protocols is a critical step, but officials in districts with increasing rates must ask themselves what they’re doing to support those students, said Brian Castrucci, an epidemiologist and president and CEO of the Bethesda-based de Beaumont Foundation, a charitable organization focused on public health.
Castrucci said getting students safely through the rest of the academic year will require a “Swiss cheese” approach, especially around the holidays when some families travel to areas with lower vaccination rates.
”If you have a single slice of Swiss cheese, you can see the holes. But if you stack 10 pieces on top of the other, you can’t see through the holes.”
“It’s a layered approach — strong quarantine protocols, mask-wearing, requirements for teachers to be vaccinated — they work together to make sure kids stay safe.”
Initially, no Baltimore-area districts offered live lessons this fall for quarantined students, although some provided tutoring for students stuck at home. But Thursday, Anne Arundel schools announced expanded plans due to the growing number of such students. Starting Oct. 4, virtual teachers will give their own lessons and directly assign students work, rather than helping students get and complete assignments from their regular teacher.
The climbing caseload has also pushed officials in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore County to cancel all homecoming dances — at least for the time being.
That was disappointing news for Stacey Montagne, who had begun planning with her son, a freshman at Arundel High School in Gambrills, for the mid-October dance. Luckily, they hadn’t spent any money on an outfit, but some parents had.
“He’s bummed out,” she said. “He does want to participate in all the school activities.”
Now, Montagne says she might plan a “faux-coming” dance for her son and his friends, maybe featuring a platter of Chick-fil-A nuggets and a speaker blasting dance music in a backyard. She wonders if the school might be able to plan an outdoor dance or festival to make up for the traditional, indoor event.
“I definitely think it’s a double standard,” she said. “You’ve got kids in football stadiums — yes, it’s outside — but they’re playing soccer games. They’re doing all of those things. They’re going to school, they’re in classrooms with 30 of their closest friends. They’re not socially distancing. Let’s be real.”
Experts say lunchtime, when students remove masks, and dismissal times, when students may cluster in groups to chat, are among the trickiest parts of the school day — and the most difficult to track. The uncertainties surrounding such contacts have left some parents wondering just how likely they are to learn their child was exposed at school.
With younger students, the difficulties multiply. Virginia Ryan, a paraeducator at Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, said it is sometimes difficult to keep pre-K students from roaming the classroom to play with friends or grab a toy. Educators do the best they can to keep students from getting too close to each other, and keep track of where they sit using a chart. They battle to keep students’ masks effective.
“A lot of them, they bring it down and put it in their mouth. So, sometimes we replace the masks because they’re too wet,” she said.
For Allison Ciborowski, a Carroll County mother of two, news that she’ll have to quarantine her first and third grader feels inevitable.
“That call is going to come. Every day I’m like: ‘OK, this could be the day that I need to completely change my work schedule,’” she said. “It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.”
Ciborowski, a single mom, knows she’ll have to coach her first grader through online lessons, which won’t involve a live instructor. At some unexpected moment, she’ll have to reschedule work meetings and cancel others.
“There’s no dashboard where you can go to say, ‘OK, what’s the chance that my kid’s going to have to quarantine this week?’” she said.
It’s frustrating that Carroll County didn’t initially require masks, Ciborowski said. Before the state requirement went into effect, she told her children to wear theirs, but they became confused when staff members told them masks were optional.
Ciborowski said she’s also concerned that Carroll County isn’t conducting any randomized COVID-19 testing for students. There’s only one permanent COVID-19 testing center at a Carroll County school, at Westminster High.
Baltimore City is the only district in the area conducting surveillance testing for students so far to pick up on cases without symptoms. Others have said they’re considering it.
For some students, the return to the school building is something of a godsend.
Baltimore City College ninth grader Serena Marie Bostic said it’s allowed her to consider a swath of new extracurricular activities. She’s interested in learning American Sign Language, joining the debate team and participating in cheerleading, volleyball and softball. She’s discovered a love of math in geometry and algebra classes, now that they aren’t conducted through a computer screen.
“It’s crazy because for so many years, I was like, ‘Man, that’s like the hardest class,’” she said. “But now, suddenly, it became my favorite class.”
The 14-year-old said she hasn’t been vaccinated but is warming up to the idea, and would need to be to participate in winter and spring sports under a Baltimore City Schools mandate for athletes.
She said her mind is at ease about possible transmission because students are conscious about wearing their masks indoors and eating lunch in a courtyard.
‘It’s always a risk. It’s always scary, especially with the variant,” she said. “But I’m not too worried because I see my peers and we all take the mask thing pretty serious.”
Baltimore Sun Media reporters Kristen Griffith and Rachael Pacella and Baltimore Sun reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.