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Following a holiday break that saw a rapid COVID-19 spike across the state, around 18,100 students from 29 public schools in Maryland were in virtual learning as of last week, according to new data from the Maryland State Department of Education.
These students represent a small portion of the more than 881,000 students enrolled in Maryland public schools but are more than were learning remotely in the fall. At that time, only one Carroll County school canceled in-person learning due to a high number of positive COVID-19 tests. But once fears of the omicron variant spread Prince George’s County Public Schools quickly veered to virtual learning in late December.
In the last month, the number of students in quarantine increased dramatically, especially for Montgomery County, which reported the state’s highest number of quarantined students.
On Dec. 7, Montgomery County had 291 students in quarantine, but that number spiked to 14,765 students by Jan. 19, Assistant State Superintendent Mary Gable told the Maryland State Board of Education on Tuesday.
Baltimore had 531 students in quarantine in December and 1,930 students learning remotely by mid-January. Dorchester County and Talbot County each had 22.3% of their students in quarantine as Jan. 19 — giving them the highest percentage of quarantined students in the state
The number of school staff in quarantine increased similarly and education advocates and a school board member raised concerns about staffing shortages across the state. For instance, Prince George’s County had only 28 staff out on Dec. 7 but 638 staff in quarantine on Jan. 19. Anne Arundel had 183 staff at home in December, but 731 staff in quarantine by January.
“We have crisis levels in staffing,” Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, told the board. “We are losing a third of our local superintendents at the end of this year.” Teachers have to split classes to cover their colleagues who are out for COVID-19 and front office secretaries are watching students in auditoriums, Bost continued.
“All of this is impacting the level and quality of education that we can provide for our students,” Bost said. She urged the state board to form a workgroup with educators, labor unions and higher education to find long-term and short-term solutions to the staffing shortage crisis.
Critical shortages include staff at COVID-19 testing sites, said Rachel McCusker, the parent representative on the state board. “You can have 12,000 tests sitting at your facility but if you only have three human beings to administer those tests, then we’re really not going to make the headway that we need to make,” McCusker said.
Although the level of community transmission in all 24 local school systems remains high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the positive COVID-19 case rate statewide is slowly declining from its peak in the beginning of January.
As of this week, no school system in Maryland is entirely virtual, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. MSDE staff told the board that they do not recommend that COVID-19 outbreaks become “automatic triggers” for canceling in-person learning, but rather that outbreaks serve only as parameters to help school administrators make decisions.
Early this month, MSDE and the Maryland Department of Health updated COVID-19 guidance for school systems to recommend that anyone who tests positive should be isolated for five days, regardless of vaccination status. Those who have been exposed do not need to quarantine but should wear a mask for ten days after exposure, according to the guidance.