This story was updated at 10:55 a.m. Nov. 20, 2020, to include more background about the school reopening debate. The story was updated again at 11:15 p.m. Nov. 21, 2020, to correct a reference to the letter sent by Dr. Travis Gayles.
Montgomery County’s health officer on Thursday evening urged private school leaders to discontinue in-person instruction as COVID-19 cases surge in the area.
In a letter sent shortly after 7 p.m., Dr. Travis Gayles wrote that he and county officials “strongly encourage all schools in Montgomery County to reassess continued in-person instruction and strongly consider a return to full virtual instruction” until the county’s case rate per 100,000 residents drops.
The letter does not mandate that the schools comply with Gayles’ request.
Every school was asked to notify the Department of Health and Human Services by Dec. 4 whether it plans to move to an all-virtual model or continue offering in-person instruction.
The county’s test positivity rate has steadily increased over the past month, and is now at 5.1%
The seven-day average of cases per 100,000 people in the county was 29.2 on Thursday, the highest level since the pandemic began.
Gayles, citing guidance from the state Department of Education, asked schools to remain in an all-virtual model until the rate drops to below 15 cases per 100,000 people.
Several Bethesda-area private schools could not be reached for comment Friday morning.
During a press conference on Thursday afternoon, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said officials “need to follow the science” about COVID-19, and that the CDC did not recommend schools close in the spring, “nor did we recommend their closures today.”
The data, he said, confirm schools “can operate with face-to-face learning, and they can do it safely, and they can do it responsibly.”
“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.
School districts across the country — including the nation’s largest, in New York City — have retreated from in-person learning in recent weeks as the pandemic worsens again. Local public schools have remained in an all-virtual model since March, but have begun planning for a phased return to face-to-face instruction, beginning in January. The plan depends on improved COVID-19 metrics.
In Montgomery County, the reopening of private schools has been contentious since summer.
After a week of back-and-forth between Montgomery County, Gov. Larry Hogan and the state’s health secretary in August, Gayles rescinded an order that prohibited private schools from reopening.
After Gayles issued his first order on July 31, Hogan issued an order of his own three days later that banned blanket private school closures by local jurisdictions.
Gayles then issued a second order, which cited a different part of the law, on Aug. 5. Maryland Health Secretary Robert Neall responded by issuing a memo stating that private schools in the state shouldn’t be closed in a “blanket manner.” Gayles rescinded his second order the day after Neall’s memo.
At the time, Gayles said he tried to mandate the school closures because many private schools planned to reopen against his advice and without adequate preventative measures.
During a media briefing this week, Gayles said there have been about 400 investigations in the county into possible cases of the coronavirus associated with schools and child care centers. But contact tracing has shown limited transmission in schools, he said.
Of the confirmed cases, most have been traced to places and events outside schools.
“It’s probably 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 those chains of transmission,” Gayles said.
He added that there’s been a higher rate of spread between students and teachers in child care settings, but did not elaborate.
There are 29 ongoing investigations into possible coronavirus cases associated with schools, Gayles said.
There are four ongoing COVID-19 “outbreaks” at county schools, according to the Maryland Department of Health. An outbreak is defined as having at least two confirmed cases among teachers, students or staff in the building in a two-week period that are linked, or cases that have occurred in three separate classrooms within two weeks.
St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac and St. Elizabeth School in Rockville each have two cases of the coronavirus in their schools, according to the state’s online data dashboard.
Bullis School has eight cases and The Heights School has four cases, according to the dashboard. Both schools are in Potomac.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org