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Local schools struggle with thousands of COVID cases

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Thousands of Maryland's public school students have contracted COVID since the beginning of the school year. Credit: Allison Shelley/Alliance For Excellent Education/Flickr

The transition to in-person learning this fall has not been a smooth one for Maryland’s school systems.

Since schools reopened, 4,042 public school students have contracted COVID; 16,559 students have had to quarantine.

There are nearly 900,000 students enrolled in Maryland’s local school systems.

The state board reviewed this data at its meeting Tuesday, which was self-reported by local school systems.

State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury said the state should have shown stronger leadership a long time ago. Choudhury became superintendent in July.

“We took a deregulated approach to COVID response. If I was here in the spring I would not have done that. I'm just gonna be real,” he said. “We don't have 1,100 school districts. We shouldn't have taken a deregulated approach to testing and masking...but we did.”

Choudhury says he is planning to meet with the state health department and all 24 school superintendents to revisit guidance.

Apart from a new mask mandate, there has been a lack of statewide COVID safety regulations.

Out of Maryland’s 24 school systems, just three confirmed that they require vaccinations for all staff. Twenty counties confirmed vaccines are not required and one county did not indicate its vaccination policy. The counties were not identified by name in the data presented at Tuesday’s meeting.

State Health Secretary Dennis Schrader also told senators Monday that the state is not considering a vaccine mandate for eligible students in public schools.

Across the school systems, staff vaccination rates vary widely. Some, like Prince George’s County and Baltimore City, have vaccination rates above 80%. But less than half of staff are vaccinated in Dorchester and Harford.

State board member Chuen-Chin Bianca Chang noted the low rates in some counties, and said that incentives may be helpful for employees.

“We really want to bring it up higher in terms of vaccination rates across the board,” Chang said.

The data also shows that the vast majority of school systems have “strongly recommended” physical distancing of at least 3 feet between students. But it’s only required in two.

Different school systems also have different quarantine teaching models. Twenty one of the systems post assignments on their learning management systems. Seven provide packets and online books, and eight provide after-school tutoring.

Managing students in quarantine and in-person has not made things easier for teachers, who expressed concerns about staff shortages at Tuesday’s meeting.

State board member Rachel McCusker, who is also an educator from Carroll County, said teachers are overwhelmed managing both students in the classroom and those who are quarantined.

McCusker said in terms of time management and sustainability, teachers are no better off than they were this time last year.

“As some of you may recall me saying last October, teachers are underwater,” McCusker said. “We’re back underwater again. That has not changed.”

McCusker said she’s not sure what the solution is. Hiring additional staff to help with the workload isn’t the answer, she said, because no one is applying. Higher salaries might be welcome, but they won’t ease the burden on teachers.

“If we don't do something about making a sustainable workload for teachers, they're not going to come to the profession, no matter what we pay them,” McCusker said.

Cheryl Bost, a teacher and president of the Maryland State Education Association, said she’s been aware that staff shortages at schools were coming for years. Bost said the pandemic has just exacerbated the problem.

“I think every district in this state has shortages in teachers. Class sizes are doubled up or we're just putting anybody in rooms. We don't have substitutes in many districts,” Bost said. “So we need to figure this out.”

State board members also discussed data on virtual learning enrollment and initiatives to support economically disadvantaged students.