This story was updated at 10:55 a.m. on Jan. 4, 2022, to include more information from an MCPS press conference.

As COVID-19 surges, 11 Montgomery County Public Schools will shift to virtual classes for two weeks, beginning Wednesday, district leaders said on Tuesday.

Related story: Read Bethesda Beat’s up-to-date list of schools shifting to virtual

During a press conference Tuesday morning, Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said the schools had reached a threshold of more than 5% of “unrelated” students and staff members reporting positive coronavirus tests in the past two weeks.

The schools are:
• Rock Terrace School in Rockville
• Cannon Road Elementary School in Silver Spring
• North Chevy Chase Elementary School
• Hallie Wells Middle School in Clarksburg
• Monocacy Elementary School in Dickerson
• Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown
• Forest Knolls Elementary School in Silver Spring
• Waters Landing Elementary School in Germantown
• Rosemont Elementary School in Gaithersburg
• Seneca Valley High School in Germantown
• Sherwood Elementary School in Sandy Spring

The shift will be counted by 14 calendar days, not 14 school days, according to McKnight’s chief of staff, Jimmy D’Andrea. All extracurricular activities and sports will be canceled during the virtual period.

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“We do intend for schools that transition to virtual learning to return to in person learning after the 14 day period of virtual instruction,” McKnight said.

Related story: 115 more MCPS schools surpass COVID threshold for virtual learning but will stay open

MCPS has 209 schools that serve about 160,000 students. Roughly 7,000 students will switch to virtual classes this week, or about 4.4% of the student population.

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MCPS Chief of Teaching Learning and Schools Ruschelle Reuben said the 14-day period will begin with a “transition process” of asynchronous (or, not live) instruction. The remaining days will have live instruction, rather than independent classes, she said.

Many of the schools that will move to virtual classes this week are upcounty, where vaccination rates are generally lower and in ZIP codes where case rates per 100,000 people are higher, according to data from the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.

In December, MCPS announced it planned to reopen schools across the county after the holiday break, but said individual schools may close if they had a high transmission rate of the virus.

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In a message to community members on Sunday, MCPS wrote that no schools had hit the threshold to close and all would reopen as planned on Monday. (Snow and inclement weather caused MCPS to cancel classes on Monday and Tuesday.)

However, the number of cases has increased since, pushing some schools into the threshold to make the shift to virtual classes, McKnight said.

“In the face of this increase, I must say that we have remained committed to doing every single thing in our power to keep our schools open for in-person learning in a way that maintains student, staff and community health and safety,” McKnight said. “And I continue to mention that because, as we work through this pandemic, there is… information that we continue to depend on, which says that we have to be very flexible in how we plan.”

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The “unrelated” label for the school population means there is spread throughout various activities and/or parts of the building, Montgomery County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said last month.

Stoddard said the 5% metric is a recommended target, not an automatic trigger. For instance, if there were an outbreak among a sports team or some classrooms that reached the threshold, officials would have to determine whether that was isolated enough not to endanger the rest of the population, and thus, in-person instruction could continue elsewhere throughout the school.

When making closure decisions, MCPS considers whether the bulk of the cases are among employees or students, and how the number of people affected might hinder operations, MCPS spokesman Chris Cram said in an interview on Tuesday.

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For example, if a large number of food service workers test positive in the school, making it difficult to distribute meals, or if too many teachers are out with not enough substitutes available, the school will likely close, Cram said.

Beginning Tuesday afternoon, MCPS will post a list on its website, to be updated each school day, that shows the number of COVID-19 cases reported at each school in the past two weeks, and an indicator of how close each school is to meeting the threshold for possible closure.

Schools color coded green will have less than 3% of students and staff members with positive COVID-19 tests in the past 14 days. Schools with more than 3% but less than 5% of students and employees who have tested positive in the past two weeks will be coded yellow, and schools with more than 5% with positive cases will be coded red.

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Eighty-nine schools were in the yellow category as of Tuesday morning, McKnight said.

Cases on the rise in MCPS, Montgomery County

Montgomery County students returned to classrooms in August after spending nearly 18 months taking virtual classes. MCPS was among the slowest in the country to reopen after COVID-19 caused widespread closures in the spring of 2020.

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Previously, MCPS leaders said the district would not return to virtual classes unless ordered to do so by state health or education officials.

Between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2, a time period in which schools were closed for winter break or weather-related closures, 5,680 students and staff members reported positive COVID-19 cases, according to McKnight. That more than doubles the number of cases reported in MCPS since the start of the school year.

About 76% of the new cases (4,313) were among students.

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Between Aug. 31 and Dec. 21 of last year, 3,102 cases had been reported throughout the school district, according to an online data dashboard maintained by MCPS.

Coronavirus case counts have risen throughout the county since the start of December. A statewide data breach prevented the state health department from providing daily updates for Montgomery County, beginning on Dec. 4.

On Dec. 28, the case rate data returned for jurisdictions. It showed that Montgomery County had reported about 481.8 cases per day, since Dec. 4. In the following days, case rates have greatly increased, to the highest single-day totals since the beginning of the pandemic.

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The state’s COVID-19 dashboard did not report cases for Dec. 31 or Jan. 1, due to the holidays. On Jan. 2, Montgomery County reported 5,760 cases, an average of 1,920 cases per day over a three-day period. On Jan. 3, the county reported 4,921 cases, a single-day record in the pandemic, according to state data.

County health officials have said in recent news briefings that while COVID-19-related hospitalizations have increased since the beginning of December, the county’s high vaccination rate has meant area hospitals are not yet in a “crisis mode.”

They added, however, that staffing levels and the spread of the virus, including the omicron variant, means that there are challenges.

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“Many of our local hospitals are rapidly approaching the contingency staffing requirement, which is, we can still provide safe care, but we might not be able to do it in the same manner that we’re accustomed to doing it,” Dr. Ann Burke, the medical director at Holy Cross Hospital, said at a recent news briefing. “So capacity is getting tight. Surge capacity is going to be even tighter.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com