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St. Mary’s County public schools see large outbreaks of COVID spread

As the Maryland State Department of Education begins to consider lifting a mandate requiring students to wear masks, schools in St. Mary’s County are experiencing some of the worst outbreaks since the pandemic began.

Margaret Brent Middle School in St. Mary’s County reported 101 cases of spread of the virus within its school last week, representing a tenth of the student body. The outbreak began in the middle of September and is classified by the state as a schoolwide outbreak, rather than an outbreak among a small group of students and teachers in a classroom.

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Officials said the number of cases added recently has been small, but they have continued to report the outbreak’s cumulative totals because the virus has continued to spread. The school will have to go without a new case for a 14-day period to be dropped from the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Few public school systems in the state have seen any significant outbreaks. By comparison, Baltimore City and Baltimore County schools have seen spread in only a handful of schools. In the city, a much larger school system than St. Mary’s, only Roland Park Elementary/Middle and Westport Academy had cases of spread. Baltimore County had about 10 schools with cases of COVID.

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The state board will hold a meeting on Dec. 7 to decide whether to continue a mask mandate that took effect in mid-September after a General Assembly approved the regulation. The board can alter the regulation at any time, and it is set to expire in February.

Of St. Mary’s 10 middle and high schools, half had significant numbers of cases of spread, according to statistics reported last week on the state health department’s website. Leonardtown High School reported 81 cases of spread, Leonardtown Middle reported 57 cases. Esperanza Middle in Lexington Park had 42 cases, Great Mills High School 64 cases and Spring Ridge Middle in Lexington Park had 58 cases. Dynard Elementary in Chaptico had 19 cases.

The principal of Margaret Brent referred calls to administrators in the school system’s central office.

Allegany, Washington and Anne Arundel counties also saw some significant outbreaks at several schools, but the levels were not as high as St. Mary’s. Of the state’s 1,449 public schools, less than 10% reported outbreaks and the vast majority were less than 10 cases, making the St. Mary’s cases unusual, according to the state’s most recent data reported on Wednesday, Nov. 10.

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St. Mary’s County’s website shows fewer cases of COVID because it shows daily, not cumulative, totals.

The state website lists the active cases in a school each week. As students return to school with a negative test, they are taken off the school’s count of students. If two weeks pass with no new cases, a school is removed from the list.

State health and education officials said in a statement they “work closely with schools to manage all outbreaks. Recommendations to temporarily suspend in-person educational activities are made only in certain circumstances.”

State guidance recommends closing a school when “there is evidence of substantial, uncontrolled in-school transmission, when schools need additional time to identify, notify, and exclude close contacts or when there are logistical or safety concerns arising from the number of cases and close contacts.”

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