The Washington Post
Montgomery County schools will create new resources for the district’s coronavirus response.
Montgomery plan does not address any direct changes to quarantines
In response to frustration from parents and community members during the first weeks back in the classroom, Montgomery County Public Schools announced a new plan Monday that will create new positions and resources dedicated to handling the district’s response to the coronavirus.
The plan includes creating a district health officer position, an advisory committee made up of community members, a coronavirus dashboard to report cases and quarantine numbers, an outreach campaign to promote in-school coronavirus testing, and additional staffers at schools to specifically handle coronavirus operations.
“We’ve been able to really hear from our community. They have shared lots of stories, narratives, examples of how the first couple weeks of school have worked for them,” interim schools superintendent Monifa Mcknight said. “We wanted to be responsive to that and think about those narratives along with all the data that we’ve been able to collect, and what that mean for what we need to do.”
While the plan includes increased transparency and community involvement, it does not address any direct changes to the quarantine policy that has sparked the most uproar among parents.
The school system’s quarantine policy — which requires those in contact with a symptomatic student to quarantine while awaiting test results — contributed to more than 1,700 students being sent home in the first five days of school.
The school system has said its quarantine policy was based on guidance from the county’s health department. Former Montgomery health officer Travis Gayles, who recently left the position, had advised in favor of the policy “based in part upon the increased contagiousness of variable COVID-19 strains and the percentage of students who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated,” according to a letter sent to MCKnight last week.
The new plan comes as school systems throughout the Washington region, and much of the country, navigate their return to inperson learning amid the surging coronavirus cases caused by the delta variant. School districts have been tasked with finding ways to balance limiting the spread of the virus and keeping students in the classroom.
In Montgomery County, some officials pointed to the low percentage of students affected by the quarantine policy compared with the overall enrollment of 160,000 students. But still many worried about the implications of sudden classroom disruption for students — especially for those in families not equipped to accommodate days of virtual learning from home.
In a media briefing Monday morning, Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D-district 5) said his son’s entire class had to quarantine last week.
“I imagined many of his classmates had to be studying home alone, or with neighbors or relatives while their parents had to show up for work,” Hucker said. “So that's unfortunate. And we want to avoid that as often as possible.”
Mcknight will present the new virus plan to the County Council Tuesday morning.
Hucker said he was excited to hear the plans the county school system has been working on but was also careful to note the lack of power that the council, which also acts as the board of health, has on school coronavirus policy.
“The state guidance urges MCPS to work together with our local health officers and our local health departments in the development of their policies and their procedures,” he said. “But local boards of health are not mentioned in their guidance at all.”
On Wednesday, school officials announced a new testing initiative that began this week to reduce virus spread and the need for potential quarantines. The school system has requested 40,000 rapid tests from the state.
Under the new system, students who show a symptom of the coronavirus can be tested at the elementary schools, and a negative test would eliminate the need for larger quarantine.
But the system works on an “opt in” basis, meaning each student’s parent or guardian must consent to testing. Mcknight said about 30 percent of the school system’s students in pre-k through sixth-grade had consent.
The school system’s new plan also outlines an outreach program called “Say Yes to the Test,” to reach 100 percent consent from parents and optimize the testing initiative.