When I moved my family back to my native Baltimore City from West Palm Beach, Florida, in 2020, a lot of horrified people reacted as if I was building a house directly on the set of “The Wire.”

Still, I was resolute in my choice, largely because I was unhappy with Florida’s response to COVID-19, and thought Maryland’s looked more solid.

Nowhere has that response been more impressive than in the schools. When my son went back to in-person learning in 2021, I was relieved by the district’s mask mandates and weekly testing. Those things aren’t magic, but they made me feel better, and, again, it felt safer than Florida, where the governor literally threatened to pull funding from districts with mask mandates.

Since school buildings reopened here in 2021, those stringent measures have gradually become less so. Masks became optional. Testing went from weekly to bi-weekly. And on the last day before winter break, my son brought home a large box of COVID tests with a note announcing that the schools would no longer do regular testing on campuses.

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Instead, schools have large supplies of home tests from the state that families can request for free. Symptomatic children will still be tested at school and those exposed to them will, as before, wear masks for 10 days.

It’s part of what Nick Smith, the school system’s director of COVID Response, calls “a phased approach” to adjusting the requirements. “The numbers were in a place where we felt comfortable, through the system, to start peeling [measures] back. We lifted the mask mandate, so they aren’t required but are highly recommended and still are.”

The city schools were one of the last places to routinely test people, and losing that layer of protection made me nervous. So I just wanted to talk to Smith about the district’s reasoning, which included closely aligning with federal guidelines.

“We always wanted to get the schools back to as much normal as possible, and wanted to not pull the rug from under everyone and go back to that right away,” Smith said. “We’re trying to get families to be proactive in this approach. None of this is being done without consideration for the health and safety of our staff and students and school family.”

I understand that these adjustments match the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s position to no longer recommend routine COVID testing in schools. But I’m admittedly still more COVID-conscious than most people. My kid and I both had it last spring and it sucked. We still mask indoors and are up to date on our vaccines. Call me a snowflake if you want, but with hospitalizations rising and more variants popping up like viral bad pennies, I think there should be more mandates and testing, not less.

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The schools are basically working on an honor system, trusting families to test at home and to not send their kids to school if they’re symptomatic or positive. Still, I look at the dearth of those masking publicly and I don’t know how much I trust people. Sorry.

Smith said he gets it, but that the schools’ position is to provide as much education and resources to its families as possible, and do things like encourage better hygiene practices among the youngest kids, where the highest numbers of infections occur. And trust that the community will follow suit.

He also acknowledged that the winter months, as well as periods after long breaks, are traditionally when numbers go up. After two weeks they tend to taper dramatically.

So far, the new policy seems to be working. Smith says there are reports every 10 days, and that the last positivity rates were at less than 1%.

He also understands my hesitation about parents not always keeping students with COVID symptoms home, but says that it’s no different “than the parent who sends their child to school with the flu.” He’s right. Also, stop doing that, parents.

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I acknowledge that the only way to completely limit one’s COVID exposure is to stay home, which I don’t want to do. Being out in public assumes some risk. So I just have to trust this process. The numbers are down now, and — fingers crossed — they will stay there. But I wondered if the schools would consider bringing back testing or masks if there is a serious and sustained spike. Smith said that if that happened, his office would consult with the school board and leadership to make a determination.

“It’s fast and simple to go back to masking, if there was a spike. It’s also the most effective. We’ve seen it work over and over,” he said. “In cases when we’ve had outbreaks, when the students and staff masks, the numbers skydive dramatically.”

Smith also assured me that there’s no end date for the distribution of home tests, and said the district “will continue to support the program as long as we can.”

I am not a scientist, just a mom who writes down my thoughts and hopes they make a difference to other people. I have no choice but do the right thing and trust others will, too.

Prove me right.

leslie.streeter@thebaltimorebanner.com

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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