2020 | Schools

Conflicting messages about COVID-19 confuse Montgomery County school leaders

County health officer says community spread rate too high; CDC director does not recommend closures

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles speaks during a virtual meeting on Friday with private school leaders.

Screenshot via livestream

School leaders in Montgomery County looking for guidance on whether to have in-person classes said Friday that conflicting messages from local, state and federal agencies complicate an already difficult situation.

On Thursday, the county’s health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, released new guidance, urging private schools to transition to a fully virtual instruction model as officials struggle to gain control of surging COVID-19 cases.

Gayles cited local data that show some metrics — like the county’s case rate per 100,000 people, which is used to guide school reopenings — that have reached their highest levels of the pandemic.

On Friday afternoon, Gayles told private school leaders that the rate of community transmission, or spread, of COVID-19 is too high to safely gather for classes.

As the transmission rate increases, so, too, does the likelihood that infected people will come to school and spread the virus, Gayles said.

“As you know, the decision to open and close your schools is your decision,” Gayles told school officials. “However, it is my responsibility as the health officer to provide guidance when and where necessary.”

On Thursday, hours before Gayles released his letter to private schools, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield said the department did not recommend school closures in the spring, “nor did we recommend their closures today.”

“The truth is, for kids in K-12, one of the safest places they can be, from our perspective, is to remain in school,” Redfield said during a press conference at the White House.

During Gayles’ meeting with private school leaders on Friday, one asked how they are supposed to make sense of the conflicting messages.

“I stand by my guidance,” Gayles said.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said the lack of a national strategy to combat the virus has hurt the county’s ability to respond.

“If we had made the national effort that we should have made three months ago, I think both Dr. Gayles and I agree, schools could have been and should have been open today,” Stoddard said. “We failed to do that as a country, and, as such, we’ve left ourselves in a situation where we have rampant community transmission.”

COVID-19 in Montgomery County youths

Since March, MCPS’ 208 schools have been closed while more than 160,000 students learn from home. Many private schools, however, began the new year with a mix of in-person and virtual learning. Many more began the year all-virtual, but have since returned to the classroom at least part-time.

By opening, private schools went against the advice of Gayles, who at the time said the rate of community transmission was too high to keep students and staff safe in group settings “even with the most robust, well-executed plans.”

Now, two months later, the county’s key coronavirus metrics are surging, and data suggest it is worse now than it was when the academic year began.

On Sept. 1, the case rate per 100,000 people in the county was 6.9. On Friday, the rate was more than four times as high, at 29.8.

During a press conference this week, Gayles said there is limited evidence of student-to-student, student-to-staff or staff-to-student transmission of the coronavirus in schools.

Of the more than 400 investigations into possible cases, at least 80 positive cases have been found, according to the health department. The cases found to have originated in schools is “in the low double digits” Gayles said.

Nobody younger than 30 has died of COVID-19 in Montgomery County, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. Children younger than 20 have accounted for about 13% of the county’s total cases.

But the number of confirmed cases in Montgomery County youths has increased since the start of the pandemic in March. In March and April, for example, 265 total cases were reported in children, compared to 1,204 in September and October.

Through the first two weeks of November, 453 people younger than 20 had tested positive for the virus.

The caveat: The county’s online data dashboard does not show how many tests have been administered to each age group, and a Department of Health spokeswoman did not provide that data when asked this week, so it is unclear if the rise in cases directly correlates with an increase in testing.

Countywide, however, the testing capacity has increased dramatically since March.

International studies not an ‘apples-to-apples comparison’

Many who advocate for school buildings to remain closed are thinking beyond whether young people will get the virus, and considering teachers and staff members, too.

When asked, MCPS did not provide data about the average age of its educators, how many of its teachers have underlying health conditions or how many are older than 50.

The National Center for Education Statistics estimates, however, that nearly one-third of teachers in the United States are older than 50 and at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

In MCPS, that percentage would equal about 4,600 of the district’s 14,000 educators.

There are no countywide estimates for the number of or average age of private school teachers.

About 95% of Montgomery County’s COVID-19 deaths have been among people older than 50, and 21% of the county’s deaths were people between 50 and 70 years old.

Some who are pushing for schools to reopen point to recent studies from other countries that suggest it is rare for people to catch or spread the coronavirus at schools. That means it’s unlikely teachers would be at significant risk if they returned to buildings, some say.

One study commonly cited, Gayles said Friday, is out of New Zealand and shows limited cases originating in schools.

But, Gayles argued, New Zealand has better control of the virus throughout the country. The rate of community spread in the country is “basically zero,” he said, which is critical.

“It’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison to where we are,” Gayles said. “… The other levels of precautions they have in place do not match what we have here in terms of a national strategy to mitigate transmission, so it makes it a little more difficult to apply their practices to ours given the context of our setting.”

Earlier this week, Gayles said contact tracing — investigations to determine where people might have been exposed and who they have interacted with — so far has shown limited transmission in local schools.

Of the confirmed cases, most have been traced to places and events outside of school.

“In terms of in-school transmission, it’s been in the low double digits in terms of situations where we have had cases where there’s been spread in school before we’ve had a chance to step in and interrupt transmission,” Gayles said.

He added that there’s been a higher rate of spread between students and teachers in child care settings, but he did not elaborate.

As conditions worsen, the county is doubling down on its restrictions in an effort to slow the virus’ spread. In recent weeks, Montgomery County has reduced the maximum capacity of indoor dining and retail establishments and advised people against traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The most recent announcement was Thursday’s plea to private schools.

While there might be limited evidence to directly link transmission to schools, gathering in groups with people you don’t live with increases risk and potential exposure — including in the classroom.

“There’s a reason you see jurisdictions put in baseline metrics and triggers for closing schools,” Gayles said. “It’s because when you have increased levels of community transmission, you increase the risk that a community member, staff member or student will walk in with COVID-19.”

And, he added, most schools remain closed or mostly closed, so there have been fewer opportunities for transmission in schools.

‘We can’t protect the kids or faculty’

MCPS reports that 136 staff members have contracted the coronavirus since March, but does not disclose how many had been working on site.

This month, Bethesda Beat filed a public records request seeking information about:

• how many staff members who were working at school sites have tested positive

• how many staff members currently work on site

• how many staff members are in quarantine due to a COVID-19 exposure

• the number of MCPS employees who have died of the virus.

In response, MCPS directed reporters to its online data dashboard, which it developed to help people track the metrics it has set to guide school reopenings.

The dashboard does not answer any of the questions in the records request, but does say that, as of Friday, 136 MCPS employees have reported testing positive for COVID-19. Also, 17 employees are currently in quarantine after testing positive.

Education advocates across the country for months have sounded the alarm about school shutdowns’ effect on students’ achievement. Many fear — affirmed by early test results — that students will experience a significant level of “learning loss” and that the impact will be most profound on Black, Hispanic and poor students.

Both Stoddard, a father, and Gayles, a former pediatrician, reiterated on Friday that they know face-to-face learning is ideal for children.

But, Stoddard said, “the conditions are such in the county that we can’t protect the kids … or faculty we put in there.”

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