2020 | Schools

UPDATED: Bullis School closes campus after two staff members test positive for COVID-19

School says it notified health department two days later

share this
Bullis logo

This story was updated at 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 19, 2020, to include a statement from Bullis School that was not previously available. The story and a headline were updated at 11:10 a.m. Aug. 20, 2020, to reflect Bullis School’s statement that it had reported the cases to the health department.

The head of Bullis School in Potomac this week closed the campus after two staff members tested positive for COVID-19, according to an email sent to families on Monday.

Bullis Head of Schools Christian Sullivan sent an email to families saying two staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday and “are both doing well.” He said the private school’s campus would be closed for two days, and that Bullis’ “contact tracing team” had identified and notified other people with whom the staff members interacted.

“The action I have taken this evening — communicating with you and closing campus for cleaning — is an illustration of how we will operate when school is open,” Sullivan wrote. “I will be transparent, and not hesitate to do the right thing, even when difficult.”

In a statement Wednesday evening, Bullis officials wrote that they notified the Department of Health of the two positive cases at 9:16 a.m. Wednesday. The message did not say what caused the delay in reporting.

The statement said neither the staff members who tested positive, nor those determined to have come into contact with them, will return to school “until it is safe for them to do so.”

“Further, we encouraged our two employees to work with the State contact tracing process which they immediately did,” the statement said.

During a call with reporters earlier in the day, Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said he learned of “a social media conversation” claiming up to 20 staff members at Bullis had to quarantine this week, but as of Wednesday morning, he did not think school officials had reported the cases to the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. Gayles’ press conference started at 12:30 p.m.

Schools are required to notify the health department of coronavirus outbreaks, which are defined as at least one confirmed case, he said.

Gayles said he did not have any more information about the situation at Bullis, but that the health department is “actively investigating.”

“If there are cases reported, the expectation is an entity would contact the health department and say, ‘We have cases here,’ and work with us,” Gayles said.

The school’s online calendar shows daily international student orientation sessions each day since Monday, but does not indicate if those are being conducted in person. The academic year does not begin until Sept. 1, when the school plans to offer some in-person instruction.

Gayles said that when a school reports confirmed cases of COVID-19, health officials conduct a thorough contact tracing effort to determine how many people might have been exposed and “identify what further actions need to be taken.”

He said the contact tracing effort would determine whether the school needs to do a deep cleaning or sanitize specific areas, or if the school needs to close for an extended time.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the whole spectrum of information to answer those questions,” Gayles said.

In a recent message to families, Sullivan wrote: “With our safety-first approach, extensive preparations, and flexible campus, Bullis resides in a local environment where it is warranted to open school.”

“As we have planned to reopen school, we have taken extensive precautions to mitigate risk and keep our students and employees safe,” Sullivan wrote.

He added that Bullis has “organized widespread testing, invested in the Magnus Health app to support screening, trained contact tracing teams, reorganized classrooms and purchased appropriate furniture to ensure physical distancing, acquired 12 marquee tents to provide outside learning and activity spaces and installed hand sanitizers across campus.”

In recent weeks, Gayles has been at odds with nonpublic schools over plans for reopening.

In July, he issued a health directive prohibiting nonpublic schools from reopening school facilities until at least October. His order was met with backlash from some parents and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. Within days, Hogan overturned Gayles’ order.

Gayles tried again to ban private school reopenings for in-person instruction, citing a different law, but rescinded his order after the state health secretary affirmed Hogan’s demand that a local health officer not issue a blanket ban on school closings.

Gayles has repeatedly said he does not feel it is safe for schools to reopen because the rate of community spread of the virus is too high. Even the most thorough plans that conform with federal health guidance will not be effective, he has said.

On Wednesday, he said schools are required under Maryland law to report COVID-19 outbreaks. As of Wednesday afternoon, no nonpublic schools had officially reported any outbreaks, he said.

County Executive Marc Elrich said he is “absolutely not” surprised that there is a COVID-19 outbreak in a nonpublic school, and that it’s “concerning” the cases haven’t been reported to the county.

“You can’t control where your faculty and staff and anybody has been or will be during the times schools are open,” Elrich said. “Am I surprised somebody might show up at schools with COVID? Absolutely not.”

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