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Maryland education leaders vow to keep schools open despite rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases

Maryland’s school leaders appear determined to keep schools open through a surge in cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus after many of their students endured one of the longest shutdowns of any state in the nation during the pandemic.

Keeping students in schools will likely mean struggles with staffing shortages, quarantines, continued mandatory masking and a scarcity of rapid tests. Individual schools may close for a period or districts may have to switch to virtual learning for a few days at a time, but superintendents said the kind of prolonged shutdown that led to spikes in mental illness and academic failures won’t be repeated.

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Parents wait with their children for the COVID-19 vaccine last month in the John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School gymnasium.
Parents wait with their children for the COVID-19 vaccine last month in the John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School gymnasium. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

“Schools need to stay open. I said it earlier in the week. It is not going to change,” Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury said, adding that his view is aligned with those of U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Choudhury said he will use his authority to support school systems that need more tests or exceptions to rules that would slow staff hires, but he also threatened to use his power to pressure school systems to reopen if they have been closed for more than a couple of weeks. He said he would consult with his legal team to find ways to apply pressure if a school system continues to stay closed beyond a couple of weeks. Choudhury did not elaborate on what the measures might be, but the education department can withhold funds from school systems under certain circumstances.

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On Sunday, Maryland reported a seven-day average positivity rate of 26%, nearing the highest numbers of the pandemic. Between Dec. 31 and Jan. 2, more than 36,000 new cases were reported in the state.

Baltimore County Public Schools announced Thursday afternoon that they will continue in-person school and earlier in the week, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Carroll county officials said they would resume classes Monday as scheduled.

But there are exceptions. Thirteen Baltimore County schools will switch to online instruction this week, including Woodlawn High School. Another four schools are having a single grade go online for a week, including sixth graders at Stemmers Run Middle in Essex.

Maryland’s largest teachers union is not calling for schools to move to virtual learning, but Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost said schools should be doing more testing and provide incentives for teachers and students to get vaccinated. “Our first priority is the health and safety of our staff. There are so many people out and there are no substitutes,” Bost said. “We need more testing and we need the state to help us with it.”

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A program instituted in Montgomery County that requires students to take a rapid test each morning before school for five days after exposure to the virus would help, Bost said. But there aren’t enough rapid tests in many school systems to institute the program. “The test to stay would help us a lot if we could get the governor to supply the test and the personnel,” Bost said.

Federal and state funding has been made available to school systems to cover the costs of testing. Gov. Larry Hogan said he had made $30 million available to enhance their own funding sources, and the state has a list of approved testing vendors the systems can use.

Still, Bost and others believe the weeks ahead are likely to be filled with staffing and testing issues and political pressure from parents on both sides of the issue.

“There is probably no way to avoid some chaos in the next few weeks,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Seattle, which has been tracking the effects of the pandemic on schools. “We will see staffing shortages and a lot of kids out sick. Districts need to do everything within their power to stay open, but we cannot ask each of them to figure this out on their own and to manage what are sure to be very intense political pressures from teachers unions and from parents.”

That pressure was building in Baltimore City as parents and teachers called for a delay in the return to school buildings this week to give the system time to get COVID test results back for all employees and students. The system is extending winter break through Monday and Tuesday so that staff and high school students can get tested at school. Elementary and middle school students will be tested Wednesday.

Baltimore Teachers Union President Diamonte Brown said the plan to reopen schools without ensuring everyone tests negative “is a fundamental failure.”

“Maddeningly, this will lead to less in-person learning and more disjointed instruction due to staffing shortages and half-full classrooms as students are quarantined and parents opt to protect their children by keeping them home,” Brown said.

The Parent Community Advisory Board also called for a delay and encouraged parents to get vaccinated, have their students tested and express their concerns to administrators.

Jocelyn Providence, a Baltimore School for the Arts teacher, took to social media to try to persuade parents and teachers to message school leaders. Providence, her husband, also a teacher, and 6-month-old baby, all came down with the virus before Christmas.

Providence said half a dozen students have emailed her saying they aren’t comfortable coming back to school. In addition, she said, school will reopen Wednesday without clarity on the number of positive cases in the school community. By the end of the coming week, she said, school administrators will have accurate data and can make a decision on when to resume school.

“I think a temporary switch to virtual learning would be the most beneficial,” she said. “Decisions are not being based on data. They are being based on how people think things are going on,” she said.

Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said last week that she is not going to switch course. “No. That is not the recommendation of the health department,” she said. Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, the city’s health commissioner, said Wednesday that she has not provided Santelises with a formal recommendation. But closing schools, Santelises said, is not an option.

“We know what this did,” Santelises said. “Black and brown children need to be in school.” Her students have been disproportionately harmed by virtual instruction, she said, and she anticipates students will drop out if she closes again. “We are not shutting bars. What else are we shutting down? Why it is not a priority to do what is necessary to keep schools open?”

Since February, the district has been testing every unvaccinated student and staff member each week. The surveillance testing has kept positive infections lower than in surrounding districts, although Santelises said she is still not forcing compliance with the testing regimen if a family refuses to sign a consent form allowing their child to be tested.

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Choudhury said about half of the state’s 24 school districts are doing some form of testing, but that the city’s is the most comprehensive. “Baltimore City is a great example ... I commend them for holding their ground and keeping schools open.”

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Many county school leaders are taking the same position as Baltimore City schools.

“The best way to help our students continue their comeback from disrupted instruction is to have them in our classrooms in front of our amazing teachers and staff every day, and we are doing everything we can to maintain that course,” Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent George Arlotto said in a letter to the school community Wednesday.

Harford County school board member Jansen Robinson said schools should stay open at this time, even in cases where there have been significant outbreaks. “When there is an imbalance, we will take the appropriate action,” Robinson said. “Our children have had major setbacks as it relates to teaching and learning because of COVID, and we know that our children learn best through in-person settings.”

Baltimore Sun Media reporters Cameron Goodnight, Katie V. Jones, Erin Hardy and Maria Morales contributed to this article.

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