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In Detention Center, Outbreak Limits Children's Education

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)

The Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center is experiencing a coronavirus outbreak among both staff and the youth incarcerated there. As of Thursday, at least four of the facility’s 31 youth residents and at least three staff had confirmed cases of COVID-19.


As a result, the youth at the detention center have limited opportunities for education, and many have no interaction with their teachers.


The children in Maryland detention centers typically have school year-round. Shortly after public schools closed statewide in March, teachers at detention centers also began working remotely.


“We were told that they were essentially keeping a full school schedule while we were not there,” said Priscilla Caporaletti, a career and technical education, or CTE, teacher at the Cheltenham Youth Detention Center in southern Prince George’s County. 


During a virtual class, the teacher would give a 45-minute lecture via a web conferencing platform, and students could submit written questions in real time, she said.


“Children had packets that went along with the material that we were teaching,” Caporaletti said. “They also had, like, the PowerPoint that we were displaying on the screen in front of them, so that they could write anything down that they needed to.”


After the lecture, students then had 45 minutes to complete written assignments.


Teachers worked remotely for nearly three months before returning to their classrooms on June 22.


But teachers at the Baltimore detention center left again earlier this month after testing revealed an outbreak.


The return to remote teaching is problematic because the setup has not worked as intended, said Nick Moroney, director of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent watchdog for the state’s juvenile detention centers.


“Kids were given packets of work to do for the six hours of mandated education time per day, and they were not given any help, or any real help, or any hands-on help,” Moroney said.

He said the youth often received similar packets day after day, and it was not until June that they received grades or feedback.


Each student had only about two or three hours a week of virtual instruction, he said.

During virtual lessons at the Baltimore detention center, the youth are given no pencils, paper or worksheets, said Jenny Egan, chief attorney in the juvenile division for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore. 

They are supposed to send teachers questions via a computer, but they are not allowed to touch the computer themselves, Egan said. They have to ask a Juvenile Services staff member to submit the questions on their behalf. 


Outbreaks present additional challenges. During an outbreak, youth who may have been exposed to COVID-19 are quarantined, and those who test positive are placed in medical isolation. While there, they can’t interact with their teachers, virtually or in person. For schoolwork, they have their packets.


Maryland Department of Juvenile Services spokesman Eric Solomon said the agency does not release the number of children in medical isolation or quarantine. 


Based on information obtained by WYPR, about two thirds of the residents at the Baltimore detention center are currently in either isolation or quarantine. Youth are also currently quarantined at other DJS detention centers with confirmed COVID-19.


“We're now on month five, and they haven't come up with a solution for how to provide education,” Egan said. “My concern is that there is not an urgency that shows care and concern for these children's lives and education.”

Solomon declined to make someone available for an interview for this story. He referred questions about education to the Maryland State Department of Education, which oversees instruction in the detention centers.


MSDE Spokeswoman Lora Rakowski also declined to provide an interview. In an email, she said the agency expects teachers to return to the Baltimore detention center in about a week, but they “continue to evaluate the situation on a daily basis.”


Meanwhile, Caporaletti, who teaches in-person at the detention center in Prince George’s County, wants to return to remote teaching out of concern for her health — concerns shared by other detention center education staff interviewed.


“I am a five-time cancer patient,” Caporaletti said. “I feel like my life is honestly being put at risk, along with, you know, my fellow co-workers who are older or the ones that have diabetes and the ones that have autoimmune deficiencies.”

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