Maryland starts publicly reporting COVID-19 outbreaks at schools
The public can now check which Maryland schools have COVID-19 outbreaks using an online tool that adds new data to the fraught debate over school reopenings.
As of Friday, the state's coronavirus website includes a page that lists school-specific information on COVID-19 outbreaks.
The data arrives as some schools have already had to shut down again after reopening because of COVID-19 cases.
A teachers union representative on Monday called the move a "baby step into transparency."
The data shows public and private K-12 schools in Maryland that have COVID-19 outbreaks based on local health department reports to the state Department of Health. The information is updated weekly on Wednesday mornings.
"The state is providing this information to be transparent and enable Maryland citizens to have the latest data on the COVID-19 virus throughout the state, including in public and non-public school settings," Charles Gischlar, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health, wrote in an email Monday.
Not all schools with COVID-19 cases will appear on the list. Schools must meet certain criteria to be included:
- At least two confirmed COVID-19 cases among students, teachers or staff within a 14-day period. The cases must be linked to each other but from separate households.
- Three or more classrooms with cases from separate households that meet the definition of a classroom outbreak within a 14-day period.
- Five percent or more unrelated students, teachers or staff have confirmed COVID-19 within a 14-day period.
Schools are removed from the list once two weeks have passed with no new cases or pending tests, according to the state's website.
The president of the state's largest teachers union on Monday said the state needs to provide more information for the data to be useful.
"That's a baby step, but it needs much more data to be placed in there for it to be relevant and really provide any tangible information that could impact decisions," said Cheryl Bost, who heads the Maryland State Education Association.
The data should include a breakdown on the number of cases among students versus staff, Bost said, and should continue to list schools even after their outbreaks have ended.
"It really gets to a better level of trust if you have more reporting and more data," she said.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and the chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, applauded the decision to publicize the school data.
"The reason this is important is we have to figure out what schools that aren't showing outbreaks are doing right and what other schools, that are getting significant outbreaks time and again, are doing as well," he said. "We need this as best practice as much as anything else."
Pinsky, a former teacher, said Monday that the state still needs to do more to help schools, including developing standardized guidelines for when districts with COVID-19 cases should shut down.
"Why can't we have a common methodology for when to close the school?" Pinsky asked. Inconsistencies among different school districts could lead to confusion and alarm among parents, he said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education pointed to state guidance that says districts should work with their local health department to determine if a school should close and for how long.
In August, shortly before the school year began, Gov. Larry Hogan announced that every local school district in Maryland met health metrics for some in-person learning. He pushed districts to develop plans for limited in-person learning by the end of the year.
The announcement drew sharp criticism from the MSEA, which accused Hogan and State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon of ambushing schools that had worked to develop their own reopening plans in the absence of a comprehensive, statewide plan.
As recently as Oct. 26, Salmon continued to encourage schools to move toward in-person learning. In a news release, the department said that 19 school districts had introduced in-person learning for small groups or hybrid teaching.
COVID-19 rates have skyrocketed since then, however, with Maryland reporting some of its highest single-day case rates in months. Hogan on Thursday warned that the state should prepare for a surge in coronavirus cases in the coming months.
Madeleine O'Neill covers the Maryland State House for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @maddioneill.