By: DAVID AKERMAN AND KELSEY WARD
There are 43 schools experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, according to the Maryland Department of Health website. Since the website started tracking COVID-19 outbreaks in Maryland schools in October 2020, there have been outbreaks in 216 schools.
Schools listed as experiencing an outbreak on the website have at least two confirmed COVID-19 cases among students, teachers, or staff who are epidemiologically linked, at least three classrooms or cohorts with cases from separate households, or at least five percent of the entire school population have confirmed COVID-19 within a 14-day period. Schools are removed from the list once health officials determine that 14 days have passed with no new cases and no tests pending.
Two schools stand out for a consistently high number of cases. Bais Yaakov Eva Winer High School, an all-girls private school in Baltimore County, hit a peak of 51 reported cases on Feb. 17, 2021. Talmudical Academy, an all-boys private school in Baltimore County, reached 72 reported cases on Feb. 10, 2021. Cases in both schools have decreased since mid-February.
Of the localities in Maryland, including 23 counties and Baltimore City, 15 have at least one school currently experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. Baltimore County currently has the highest number of cases and schools on the list with 58 and 13, respectively. Washington County is second in both categories, registering 56 cases and nine schools on the list.
Public schools on the list have a total of 152 cases across 30 schools, an average of 5.07 cases per school, while the private schools listed have a total 57 cases across 13 schools, an average of 4.4 cases per school.
Baltimore and Washington County, currently the counties with the highest number of positive cases in schools, both rank in the top half of infection rates per 1,000 people for all Maryland counties. Baltimore County has an infection rate of 74.8 per 1,000 people while Washington County’s infection rate is 92.3 per 1,000 people.
Worcester County has the third-highest number of positive cases in schools, with all 24 cases reported at Stephen Decatur High School. The county ranks right in the middle with 67.4 cases per 1,000 people.
Washington County Public Schools (WCPS) have been in the fourth phase of their “Return to Learn” plan since Feb. 16. In this phase, students are able to attend in-person classes five days a week while distance learning is offered to those who do not wish to return to the classroom yet.
“Other schools across the state and across our county have seen similar case numbers, but they are not included in the dashboard because two or more cases are not epidemiologically linked,” said Erin Anderson, a Communications Officer for WCPS. “Overwhelmingly, we have found that individuals catch COVID-19 from activities outside of school and we have been able to prevent the spread of the virus in our schools.”
Anderson noted that the Washington County Health Department has not deemed it necessary to close the schools on the state’s outbreak list.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has long been vocal about the reopening of schools, having called on schools, on Jan. 21, to do their best to reopen by March 1 if they hadn’t already.
In a letter addressed to Cheryl Bost, President of the Maryland State Education Association, on Jan. 21, Hogan and Karen Salmon, State Superintendent of Schools, called for schools to reopen. An increase in learning loss and failing grades was a driving factor in Hogan’s push to open schools, according to the letter.
“The clear social and emotional toll that online learning has taken on students, families, and educators is yet another unquantifiable impact of the prolonged school building closure,” wrote Hogan and Salmon. “Therefore, immediate action must be taken by every school system in our state to provide opportunities for in-person instruction to all students.”
On March 19, the CDC released new studies recommending that students should maintain three feet of social distance in classrooms where mask mandates are required.
Six feet of social distancing is recommended where transmission rates are high and cohorting is not possible. Teachers and other faculty are recommended to remain six feet apart when interacting with both students and other adults.
“It will never be — and never has been — 100 percent risk-free to return to school. We know a lot more than we did last spring about how to prevent transmission, and vaccination is on the rise,” Allison Barlett, Associate Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Chicago Medicine, told the New York Times. “There are significant deleterious effects on children who are learning remotely, and that needs to get equal attention.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in-person learning in schools has not contributed to substantial community outbreaks. Children age 5-17 account for just under 10% of COVID-19 cases in the United States.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Maryland has been one of the slowest states in returning students to in-person learning, as only 57.4 percent of its students have gone back to in-person classes. As of April 20, only four states — California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Oregon — have a smaller percentage of students back in classrooms, according to Burbio, a website that has been tracking the return of students to classrooms during the pandemic.
Prince George’s County became the last school district in Maryland to begin reopening its schools on April 6. As of April 22, Prince George’s County has no school cases or schools experiencing outbreaks and has an infection rate of 90 per 1,000 people.