Credit: Getty

As students return to schools Aug. 29 for the start of the 2022-23 academic year, Montgomery County Public Schools will largely return to pre-pandemic procedures, keeping mask-wearing optional, ending some quarantine requirements and stopping COVID-19 screening testing. 

MCPS on Thursday announced its guidelines for the fall, which largely align with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The protocols were announced the same day the county’s transmission level again receded to the “low” classification, according to the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. 

The measure is based on the number of COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 people over the past week, and the percentage of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients in the past week. 

For several weeks, Montgomery County had been in the medium and high range, but dropped to “low” on Thursday, meaning there were fewer than 10 admissions per 100,000 people and the percentage of hospital beds used by COVID-19 patients was less than 10% over the past seven days. 

Here is a breakdown of MCPS guidance and answers to some common questions: 

Do students and staff members have to wear masks? 

No, but they can if they want to. The county school board this spring voted to end its districtwide mask mandate and it’s not coming back this fall. The district has said, however, that the decision could change if the transmission rate of the virus gets too high, and some classes or schools could be required to wear masks temporarily if there is a COVID-19 outbreak. 

Does the guidance explain how MCPS will determine if a mask mandate should be reinstated or schools might be shifted to virtual classes? 

The district’s reopening guide does not outline a specific datapoint that would trigger the reinstatement of a mask mandate. It says the decision could be made based on local transmission levels. The district says it will keep schools open unless ordered to close them by county or state health officials. Neither state nor local health departments have said specifically what might trigger such a move. 

What is the district’s quarantine protocol? 

Unlike previous years, close contacts of people who tested positive will not be asked to quarantine, regardless of their vaccination status. People who test positive, though, will still be asked to quarantine for five days following the onset of symptoms or the positive result, in alignment with guidance from the state Department of Health. They will be asked to wear a mask for five additional days following the quarantine period. If they can’t wear a mask, they will be asked to continue to quarantine through the 10th day. 

Who’s required to get the COVID-19 vaccination? 

Students are not required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend in-person classes, though getting vaccinated is encouraged. Staff members are required to provide proof of vaccination unless they have a documented medical or religious exemption. Those with an exemption must take and report the results of a weekly COVID-19 test. 

Will MCPS maintain its COVID-19 case dashboard? When will families be notified of a case or exposure?

MCPS spokesman Chris Cram wrote in a text message Friday that the district will continue to update its online dashboard that tracks the number of confirmed cases and quarantines at each school. Details about how often that would occur were not immediately available Friday or Monday.
MCPS is no longer conducting contact tracing, but says in its reopening guide it will notify staff and families of an exposure “if there is an identified case of COVID-19 in a high-risk cohort situation or local outbreak.” 

Will the district continue test-to-stay or random screening testing? 

No. Last year, MCPS asked students to opt in to screening testing for COVID-19, intended to identify asymptomatic cases. This year, the district will not conduct such testing, in alignment with CDC guidance. Rapid tests will still be available if a student shows symptoms of COVID-19 at school. 

When schools reopened full-time last fall, each was required to have an “isolation room” for students who tested positive for COVID-19 during the school day, where they waited to be picked up and taken home. Schools will not have isolation rooms this year. Instead, students will wear a mask and “physically distance themselves from others while waiting for prompt pick-up,” the guide says. 

Will there be any capacity limitations in classrooms, on buses or for athletic events? 

No. Because six feet of physical distancing is no longer required where possible, classrooms, MCPS transportation and athletics competitions will return to pre-pandemic capacities, according to the reopening guide. 

Will there be any extra precautions at meal times? 

MCPS says students will be able to eat breakfast and lunch in their school cafeterias as normal, but that schools are “encouraged to take advantage of outdoors spaces when possible so that students can eat in areas that pose a lower risk of virus transmission.” High schools can return to open-campus lunches, an option that was not allowed during the pandemic. 

Is MCPS still offering the Virtual Academy? 

Yes. The Virtual Academy remains an option this year for families with special health concerns or high school students with scheduling needs — such as the need to take extra courses or to work. MCPS had not responded to questions as of Friday afternoon about how many students are enrolled for the 2022-23 school year.