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Outbreak Halts Classroom Instruction At Baltimore Youth Detention Center

A CG image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 (CDC)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
A CG image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 (CDC)

A COVID-19 outbreak at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center has caused the state to pause classes at the youth detention center and send educational staff home indefinitely. 


At least six staff at the facility have confirmed cases of COVID-19, officials said Friday.


Sharon Joseph, a school counselor, said she was sent home shortly after she showed up to work Thursday morning.


“I had just sat down at my desk, and my principal came and knocked on my door and he said, ‘You need to go home,’” she said. “We weren’t given any reason beyond they’re coming in to clean the area again.”


The education staff received a letter from the State Department of Education Thursday night. It said a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, and the Department of Juvenile Services would conduct an “emergency cleaning of the entire facility.” The letter said teachers will begin holding classes virtually when it is safe for students to return to their classrooms.


Juvenile Services Assistant Secretary Betsy Fox Tolentino said she expects virtual learning to begin on Monday. She said the State Department of Education will decide when teachers return to the facility.


Lora Rakowski, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education, did not answer an emailed question, specifically asking when teachers will return in person.


"Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) staff at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center are currently working virtually,” Rakowski wrote.  


The staff member who tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday was the sixth worker at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center to test positive since the department began testing all staff there the week of June 22. 


The first five positive results came back after that first round of testing, at the end of June, Tolentino said.


“After the first round of testing, we cleaned the entire facility with a company who is certified in cleaning and response to infectious disease,” Tolentino said.


They also tested all staff for a second time this week. Those results are expected back in a few days.


The letter staff received Thursday was the second letter warning them they may have been exposed to the virus. The first letter, on June 24, told the staff to report to work the next day as usual. Neither letter said to get tested for COVID-19 or to self-isolate for a period of time.


Joseph said she is unsurprised the virus is spreading at the facility. She said cleaning appears to be sparse, even of shared spaces.


For example, staff are required to keep personal belongings, such as purses and cell phones, in shared lockers that are “clearly not cleaned every day,” Joseph said. 


Staff are not permitted to bring insulated lunch bags into the facility, so they use a communal refrigerator to store food. 


There is also a shared unisex bathroom “that maybe, at best, is cleaned weekly,” Joseph said. “It’s not cleaned daily.”


She said staff and youth are inconsistent about wearing masks over their noses and mouths.


The youth are responsible for cleaning and disinfecting their own cells, according to Jennifer Egan, who oversees juvenile litigation in Baltimore for the state Office of the Public Defender.


“Approximately 50% of young people who are detained in DJS facilities have mental health diagnoses and cognitive limitations,” Egan said. “To put a cognitively limited, mentally ill child in charge of their own hygiene and cleaning and disinfection with no training, with no qualifications is quite a dangerous way to manage that.”


But Tolentino said the entire facility is professionally cleaned twice a day.


“Then when we have young people enter a room, it's wiped down before they come in and wiped down after they leave,” Tolentino said.


She also said mask wearing is strictly enforced.


“We have a robust quality assurance process to ensure that the safety protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing are being adhered to,” Tolentino said. “Our quality assurance team monitors facilities daily by watching video and, you know, to ensure that the masks are properly being worn and that the social distancing is occurring.”

Joseph, who said she has two autoimmune conditions, has considered leaving her job out of concern that being in the congregate care facility poses too big a risk to her health.


“Quite honestly, it feels a little bit like you’re playing Russian Roulette,” she said.


Tolentino said the Department of Juvenile Services expects to complete the first round of testing across its 13 facilities by the end of July. There are still no plans to continuously test staff or youth who don’t show symptoms.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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