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Reopening Schools

Last updated: February 4, 2021

Updated COVID-19 Health Guidelines for Anne Arundel County
February 2, 2021


School girl wearing a mask

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In-person instruction is critical for the cognitive, social/emotional, and physical development of children. The Anne Arundel County Department of Health provided school reopening guidance in October 2020 to help safely reopen schools. It was based on the Maryland School Reopening Guidance published in late August 2020, which was developed jointly by the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) and the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). Our guidance built on the state’s framework to address reopening guidelines, testing, contact tracing and outbreak management. AACPS had already shared its plan to implement a comprehensive set of COVID-19 mitigation measures based on best practices.

In the past month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and MDH/MSDE have published updated guidance to help get children back into school and to do so safely for both students and staff. As noted in our original guidance, we committed to updating these recommendations as new information came out.

The Maryland School Reopening Guidance from MDH/MSDE, updated earlier this month, provides a review of data from Maryland and published research. The guidance no longer relies on case rate metrics in light of data and research across a broad range of case rates and percent positivity that shows that COVID-19 “transmission in schools is relatively uncommon.” Data from around the country shows that the case rate for those in school, both students and staff, is similar to the case rate in the community. Schools with mitigation strategies in place have not been found to be significant sources of community spread and have not contributed to accelerating community spread. A new CDC report finds that, “with proper mitigation strategies, K–12 schools might be capable of opening for in-person learning with minimal in-school transmission of SARS-CoV-2.”

The state guidance recommends a return to in-person learning with the following measures in place:

  1. Continue to effectively implement all MDH/MSDE health and safety requirements (i.e., distancing, masking, and cleaning/disinfecting)
  2. Seek to limit transmission in the school environment (i.e., exclusion, quarantine, contact tracing, manage cases and outbreaks)
  3. Consider the school’s ability to manage operational issues
  4. Provide parents and caregivers the opportunity to choose a remote option for their children.

Based on research from the past few months and updated guidance from the CDC and MDH/MSDE, the the Anne Arundel County Department of Health is updating its guidance from October 2020 to supplement the state’s Maryland School Reopening Guidance. This updated reopening guideline is a living document and over the coming months we will continue to incorporate new knowledge and lessons learned to further refine this guidance as needed. The specific changes in our supplemental guidance are:

  1. Reopening case rate metrics are no longer part of the guidance in line with changes in the Maryland and CDC guidance.
  2. Testing for schools is updated based on current Health Department operations
  3. Contact tracing in schools is updated to reflect current guidance
  4. Managing cases in schools is updated to reflect the partnership between the Health Department and AACPS on jointly managing cases in school
  5. Vaccines is a new section that addresses their role as a key mitigation strategy

AACPS has the primary authority to decide when and how schools open and close. AACPS has a separate plan that specifically addresses detailed safety steps to be taken in schools, so those elements will not be covered in this guidance.

The success of reopening schools is dependent on collaboration between AACPS, the Health Department, students, parents and the community. Proper safety measures, including wearing a mask, social distancing, washing your hands, avoiding unnecessary gatherings, and getting vaccinated when it is your turn, are still the best tools we have to get and keep schools open.


A key element to safely open schools for in-person instruction is widely available COVID-19 testing. In order to keep students engaged in in-person learning, testing needs to be available and used after symptom onset, for potential exposure, or for routine surveillance.

Testing will be available to all students, families and staff, whether or not they have symptoms, and at no cost, through existing Department of Health testing sites located throughout the county. This includes community pop-up testing sites that are available in communities hardest hit by the pandemic and where a significant number of Title I schools are located. This program has allowed communities with greater need to have equitable access to testing.

Promptly testing all identified school-based close contacts of a positive student or staff will slow school-based and community transmission of COVID-19. When an individual within a classroom or cohort is confirmed positive for COVID-19, a target testing team will provide onsite testing for other cohort members and identified close contacts within the school. This testing will be done:

  • At diagnosis: Testing for all members of cohort with a positive individual to detect asymptomatic presence of virus in cohort
  • 7-10 days: Testing for all members of cohort with a positive individual to detect new cases

Critically, as case rates rise, the amount of testing needed will increase, which may present a logistical barrier.

Contact Tracing

DOH staff have been doing contact tracing and outbreak investigations in school for decades as a routine part of their work. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of investigations has increased which requires additional help from the school community. To expedite contact tracing in school, students and staff should inform the school that they are COVID-19 positive. AACPS will notify the Health Department to expedite contact tracing investigations and coordinate with other counties as needed. It is critical that students, families and staff share information about potential contacts to ensure that supports for isolation and quarantine can be provided to those who need it to slow the spread.

Managing Cases in School

Given community transmission of COVID-19, we can expect to see cases in students and staff over the course of the school year. Catching cases early and adherence to safety measures will significantly reduce the chance of in-school spread. We use a detailed algorithm provided by the Maryland Department of Health to evaluate how to manage cohorts that include a person with (a) confirmed COVID-19, (b) COVID-19 like illness (when symptoms meet criteria consistent with COVID-19 but testing has not been done), and (c) symptoms concerning for COVID-19 but not meeting the criteria for COVID-19 like illness.

When there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 or COVID-19 like illness identified in school, that person’s cohort will be assessed for quarantine. Isolation and quarantine will be managed by the Department of Health in partnership with AACPS. While testing is helpful in identifying people who have COVID-19 without symptoms (and is now being used to shorten the length of quarantine), MDH has determined that the length of quarantine should remain at 14 days in the school setting to reduce risk in the classroom setting.

A classroom or cohort outbreak is when there are two or more confirmed cases within that classroom or cohort, from different households, within 14 days. An outbreak is strongly suggestive of spread that occurred at school. However, in the setting of high community case rates, it may be difficult to distinguish between in-school and community spread. Generally a classroom or cohort outbreak is identified when a second case is identified while that classroom or cohort is in quarantine.

A school-based outbreak is defined as (a) three or more classrooms or cohorts with outbreaks at the same school within a 14 day period, or (b) 5% or more of unrelated students and staff at a school with COVID-19 within a 14 day period. This type of outbreak typically leads to school closure.

Cases and outbreaks will be tracked to provide ongoing information about community spread, in-school spread, and the effectiveness of mitigation strategies in school. The Department of Health and AACPS will communicate directly with anyone requiring isolation and quarantine. AACPS will communicate with affected school communities while maintaining the health privacy of those directly affected.


Vaccines provide a route out of the pandemic by significantly decreasing the risk of severe disease and death. There is a limited supply of vaccines which is why different groups are prioritized based on individual risk and their importance for societal functioning. Vaccines are an additional mitigation factor and will decrease the risk of school disruptions and in-school transmission. They are not required for a return to school.

Educators have been prioritized to receive vaccines in Phase 1b and will begin being vaccinated in February 2021. Educators include teachers and staff working at AACPS. Students 16 years old and older would either be in Phase 2, if they have a high risk medical condition, or Phase 3 if they do not. Based on current vaccine supplies we estimate starting Phase 2 vaccinations in April/May and anticipate that it will take many months to complete this Phase. At the current time, there is no vaccine for children 15 years old and younger.

Resources Used to Develop Reopening Schools Guidance include the following:

  1. COVID-19 Guidance for Maryland Schools (MDH and MSDE)
  2. CDC guidance
  3. The Path to Zero and Schools: Achieving Pandemic Resilient Teaching and Learning Spaces (Harvard Global Health Institute)
  4. Decision Tree for Provision of In Person Learning among K-12 Students at Public and Private Schools during the COVID-19 Pandemic (Washington State Department of Health)
  5. Initial Fall Reopening Guidance (Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education)
  6. Following the Metrics: Criteria for in-person instruction (Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority)
  7. Reopening Schools: Health Guidance by COVID-19 Phase (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment & Colorado Department of Education)
  8. A Blueprint for Back to School (AEI)
  9. COVID-19 School Response Dashboard

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