2021 | Schools

After pushback on quarantines, MCPS again updates protocol for unvaccinated students

Availability of rapid COVID-19 tests is factor in change

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MCPS and County Council officials meet to discuss the school district's COVID-19 response, testing protocols and quarantine guidelines.

Screenshot via livestream

Less than two weeks after announcing stricter quarantine guidelines for unvaccinated students possibly exposed to COVID-19, Montgomery County Public Schools officials on Tuesday backtracked, announcing they will no longer require “close contacts” to quarantine while awaiting test results.

On Friday evening of the first week of school, MCPS officials announced that any unvaccinated student considered a close contact of someone with a symptom that could be associated with COVID-19 would be required to quarantine until the symptomatic student provided a negative test.

The guidance differed from what is recommended by state and federal health officials, who do not advise students to quarantine while waiting for test results.

During a meeting with the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday, MCPS leaders said beginning immediately, they will no longer require quarantines of close contacts unless the symptomatic student tests positive or was recently exposed to someone who has COVID-19.

Those students considered close contacts will not be directed to quarantine in the absence of a test result.

Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s health department — which, under the guidance of then-health officer Dr. Travis Gayles, previously recommended the stricter quarantine guidelines — said it updated its recommendations. The district has begun administering rapid-result tests when a student in a school presents symptoms that could be consistent with COVID-19, Crowel said.

Students who take a rapid-result test at school that is returned as negative will be advised to separately receive a standard test, as well.

Council members said they were pleased with the changes to the district’s quarantine guidelines.

Council Member Hans Riemer said the updates now seem like a “very effective policy.”

Council Member Craig Rice said, “I look at this as a great evolution of a continued process and it will continue to evolve.”

Through the first two weeks of school, roughly 2,000 students had to quarantine after either testing positive for COVID-19 or being identified as a “close contact” of someone who had. MCPS has reported about 120 confirmed positive cases of the virus among staff members and students.

Community members raised concerns about the quarantine protocols because they feared the policy would lead to unnecessary time out of classrooms for children who already missed 18 months of in-person lessons.

MCPS and county health officials said they empathized, but noted that several students who were sent home with possible COVID-19 symptoms later tested positive for the virus, meaning the close contacts who were also sent home were “true close contacts.” Quarantining those contacts likely limited the spread of the virus, they said.

The district has previously defined a “close contact” as being within 6 feet of someone who tested positive for COVID-19 while eating, or for more than 15 minutes during a 24-hour period, regardless of mask use.

MCPS has previously said students who were in a classroom within 3 feet of someone who tested positive for 15 minutes or more during a 24-hour period are required to quarantine, regardless of mask use. (Face coverings are required to be worn in MCPS buildings and on school buses, regardless of people’s vaccination status.)

In a letter to Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich last week asking for assistance in securing rapid tests, school board President Brenda Wolff wrote that the previous quarantine guidelines resulted in “excessive numbers of our students” missing in-person classes.

On Monday, McKnight told Bethesda Beat that MCPS will soon launch an outreach campaign with an aspirational goal of convincing 100% of the district’s families to opt in to COVID-19 screening and rapid testing.

The outreach campaign will be called “Say Yes to the Test” and highlight the importance and intended benefits of screening testing available in pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade — like catching asymptomatic cases of the virus before it spreads and forces more students out of classrooms. It will also push for participation in rapid testing the district will use when students have possible COVID-19 symptoms at school.

Asked why the rapid-result COVID-19 tests weren’t available and ready to be used on the first day of school, Crowel said he’s “unable to answer that at this point.” He said officials are “working through trying to figure out how we get test kits where they need to be and fix the problem.”

MCPS will use a mix of rapid tests it received from the state health department in the spring and within the past week, as well as tests provided by county officials. Each of MCPS’ 209 schools have rapid tests available in their health rooms, according to MCPS officials.

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