Educators accuse MDH of 'hiding' schools' COVID-19 data

Shown are Talbot County Public Schools students who returned for in-person schooling amid the pandemic.

ANNAPOLIS — With some Maryland school districts reversing course on re-openings and many still hesitant to welcome students back into classrooms amid the pandemic, the state teachers union is calling on the health department for safety guidance and more transparent reporting of coronavirus cases in schools. 

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, during a press conference Monday, Oct. 26, accused the Maryland Department of Health of "collecting and hiding" data about coronavirus cases in schools.

Bost said the state's alleged secrecy is "preventing educators and families from having access to transparent information about their own schools." She pointed to the state's initial withholding of data tallying nursing home infections as evidence the state is doing the same with schools' data.

MDH has since made virus data public for nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other congregate living facilities, such as jails and prisons. Bost said the state should create a COVID-19 dashboard for its schools. MDH's current approach, she said, is "not right and is not helping us to be safe."

Bost also said educators want to see adequate ventilation, sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment for school attendees, increased sanitation of schools, and clear and transparent procedures for those within schools who test positive for COVID-19. She cited a survey MSEA released Monday that showed 95% of Maryland educators support a statewide approach to safe schools re-openings. 

While much of what Bost demanded is desired by educators statewide, it appeared MSEA's concerns Monday were geared more toward developing and guiding a blanket reopening plan to be followed by more populous school districts, such as those in Prince George's, Baltimore and Montgomery counties, and Baltimore City. None of the districts has reopened its classrooms to students this semester.

Across the Mid-Shore, three of five school districts already reopened their schools to some students for in-person learning. Kent and Queen Anne's counties' students are still learning from a distance. Talbot, Dorchester and Caroline counties already have opened school buildings for at least some in-person schooling this semester. 

Dorchester has since closed its school buildings for an undetermined amount of time. Caroline closed Greensboro Elementary School for two weeks after several teachers tested positive for the coronavirus. Students are set to return to Greensboro Elementary next week on Nov. 2. 

Meagan Fitzpatrick, an epidemiologist associated with the University of Maryland School of Medicine, nodded to Dorchester's closure Monday. "We've seen very recently how conditions on the ground can change very rapidly as incidents in Dorchester County more than tripled over two weeks," she said. 

"(Dorchester's) decision to close schools in the face of such metrics was the right one," Fitzpatrick said, referring to the county's 31.7 case rate per 100,000 population on Oct. 21 — the day the county closed its schools. "We hope such surges will be rare, but we should be prepared for that." 

Talbot County opened its schools to elementary students on Oct. 12 and its middle and high school students on Oct. 19. The school district has confirmed two cases among its students, teachers and staff since children returned to classrooms. 

County Health Officer Dr. Fredia Wadley has said she's monitoring the local cases per 100,000 people metric to guide her decisions regarding school closures. As of Monday, the county reported a case rate of 8.07, according to Talbot health data.

Wadley said she wants the rate to stay below 10, which according to MDH, indicates an area is in the clear to offer in-person schooling. If an area's case rate reaches 15 or higher, MDH has said districts should consider ceasing or limiting face-to-face instruction. 

But Wadley has noted a high case rate isn't always cause for action. If through contact tracing the county determines the high rate is not attributable to spread among individuals in a school setting, she said she would be comfortable keeping schools open. 

In response to questions about what the criteria are for a school closure during the pandemic, Wadley said it's more complicated than just counting cases among students, teachers and staff. If there is no evidence of person-to-person spread within the schools, she said, it's more than likely safe for the buildings to stay open. 

"The schools cannot limit what the teachers or students do during their time away from school, but good precautions and practices are to prevent the virus from spreading in the school setting," Wadley said.

The health officer said she understands that "trust in anything government is low," but she assured, "I haven't dedicated 33 years of my life to public health to neglect the health of children during this pandemic."

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