Maryland health officials are refusing to release a complete list of schools where cases of COVID-19 have emerged, even as public school systems start making plans to bring select groups of students back to classrooms this fall.
The debate over the safety of returning children and staff to school buildings during a pandemic has crescendoed in communities throughout the region in recent weeks.
Parents, teachers and union leaders rallied in September outside a Baltimore City public schools office to fight a potential reopening after the school year began online. In Baltimore County, some parents were overjoyed with a school system plan that would allow some families the option of sending students back to school in November. School districts in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties have approved plans to resume in-person classes before year’s end.
Health experts say publicizing the data could help school districts make more informed decisions about reopening and help researchers understand the role of children and schools in spreading the virus.
There’s an appetite in the community to examine positive case data at the individual school level, said Joe Kane, chair of city schools' Parent and Community Advisory Board.
“The release of COVID-19 data within the school districts would help parents make informed decisions,” Kane said. “There’s a lot of debate behind the scenes about whether or not to return to school, how to return to school. Not having those data points really limits the conversation.”
While all Baltimore-area public school systems chose to begin the school year online, a number of private schools have already reopened to students and taken various precautions to protect school-age children and their households from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has said all 24 public school systems in the state meet state-created benchmarks that indicate it is safe to reopen for some in-person instruction. And Maryland school superintendent Karen Salmon announced in August $10 million in grants available to the school systems that choose to bring students back into buildings.
COVID-19 cases at private schools could provide communities with a bridge to understanding how the reopening of public schools might fare during a public health crisis.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore has confirmed 20 such cases at 10 of its 44 Catholic schools, which serve about 16,000 students. It’s unclear whether the cases were contracted on campus or outside of schools.
Schools are required to report confirmed cases of COVID-19 to local health departments, said Mike Ricci, a Hogan spokesman.
But some local health officials have declined to answer basic questions about which schools within their jurisdictions have reported cases.
“If we don’t collect this data, analyze it, publish it, there will always be a question mark. It will only be a judgment call to re-open schools.”— Tara Sell, with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security
Baltimore City health department spokesman Adam Abadir referred questions about cases in schools to the state. And the Anne Arundel County health department has refused to confirm private school cases to “maintain the privacy of individuals,” said spokeswoman Elin Jones in an email. She did not explain how the data could be used to identify people.
Counties such as Harford and Carroll answered specific questions about cases, but would not commit to publicly reporting cases in the future.
That means many families of school-age children have no access to a key metric as they decide how best to balance educational needs against potential public health risks.
The Maryland Department of Health has held discussions with local health officers and school systems about standardizing such case data for public and non-public schools. Some school systems have expressed privacy concerns, said department spokesman Charlie Gischlar in an email.
Gischlar did not respond to questions about which private schools in Maryland have reported COVID-19 cases.
The Evening Sun
There’s a reasonable argument for the state to release the data, said Tara Sell, a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“Understanding more about what’s happening in schools is going to tell us a lot about what the role of children is in spreading the virus,” Sell said. “If we don’t collect this data, analyze it, publish it, there will always be a question mark. It will only be a judgment call to re-open schools.”
Piecemeal confirmations of cases in Maryland schools echoes a similar situation in the spring among nursing homes.
A Maryland Department of Health spokesman told The Sun in April that it was up to the local departments, and individual nursing homes, to release the information publicly. State health officials later reversed course and began releasing cases counts for each nursing home weekly, following pressure from families, patient advocates and the nursing home industry itself.
Still, the risks COVID-19 poses to nursing homes where people reside full-time are not necessarily comparable to those of schools. Most children are not considered as vulnerable to the disease, although a secondary risk is carrying the virus that causes COVID-19 home to other family members, Sell said.
If the state releases school-level data on COVID-19 cases, communities should not be surprised to learn of cases affiliated with the school. Contact tracing will ultimately determine whether an outbreak originated at a school versus a person who is affiliated with a school, she said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell, Pamela Wood, Emily Opilo, Scott Dance and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.