2022 | Schools

Health officer says 5% positivity threshold for shift to virtual learning wasn’t ‘absolute’

MCPS, county health officials discuss guidance during community meeting

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Screenshot via Zoom

Montgomery County’s acting health officer said Wednesday night that a threshold Montgomery County Public Schools used to consider whether to shift to virtual instruction was not “absolute.”

The school system announced prior to the start of the semester last week that if 5% or more of a school’s students and employees tested positive for COVID-19, it would trigger a review of whether to switch to virtual instruction.

But MCPS abandoned the 5% benchmark for an automatic review on Friday, citing guidance from the state, which did not recommend the use of thresholds.

MCPS has come under fire from the public in the past week and a half due to criticism over the school system’s perceived lack of communication, what some feel is an inconsistent policy of choosing in-person or virtual learning, a bus driver shortage and high rates of absence for students and teachers, among other issues.

On Sunday, Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight apologized for MCPS’s handling of the situation.

MCPS leaders and county officials held a community meeting Wednesday night to address continuing concerns, answering presubmitted questions from the public during the 90-minute virtual forum. MCPS spokesman Chris Cram asked the questions, which were sometimes combined into general topics.

When asked about the school system’s policy on whether a school should shift into virtual learning, Acting Health Officer James Bridgers said there is “no one best-fit scenario.”

“I want to be very clear that that 5% threshold was not an absolute threshold,” he said.

Bridgers said county and school system officials examine many factors when making decisions about shifting to virtual learning, such as rate of absenteeism, severity of illness and in-school transmission versus community transmission. They also look at COVID-19 metrics in other school systems, such as those in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, he said, in determining best practices.

“We look at many metrics to identify thresholds and identify those percentages,” he said. “We know that this omicron variant is very enigmatic. It’s very tricky. And we’re assessing and surveilling all of those data points.”

McKnight said MCPS officials have met at least once a week with county health officials during the pandemic, and often multiple times per week.

“And when we have new guidance that comes out from the CDC, that then has to be translated by the state, that then has to be translated locally, we have to talk about how all of those steps are either clear or not clear, and work with the information that we do have, combining the expertise of health, combined with the expertise of education, and trying to come together to make the best decision,” she said.

McKnight said it was necessary to move away from the 5% threshold because of “changing guidance” from the state affecting how MCPS made decisions about virtual learning.

“While we thought initially that it would be appropriate to rely on a threshold to consider whether a school should consider whether to transition to virtual learning, the state then later clarified that the thresholds should not be used to automatically consider a suspension of in-person learning,” she said.

McKnight said the district is looking at statistics such as absences and unfulfilled substitute teacher requests to determine if a short-term transition to virtual learning for an individual school would be beneficial. Recently, the school system’s student absence rate has been as high as 14%, right before Christmas.

“I emphasize short-term, and we have to look at that on a school by school basis,” she said.

Later, Cram asked McKnight to address questions related to communications and clarity.

McKnight responded: “When we face a crisis, you have to talk a lot, you have to talk often [and] you have to spend time to explain and ask questions and get answers to those questions.”

“As we break down communication, being clear about the audience and what the audience wants to know is really important. Another valuable lesson we’ve learned in different ways throughout managing COVID-19.”

McKnight committed to communicating often, and possibly having additional community meetings with the public.

In the district’s message to the community on Sunday, McKnight said: “While the circumstances leading to these disruptions are beyond our control, we should have done a better job communicating with you about these challenges and clarifying our response. I apologize for any stress this cause our staff, students, and community members.”

An update on tests, masks and bus drivers

Also in the message on Sunday, MCPS said students and employees were to receive rapid take-home tests this week. Additionally, students were to receive KN-95 masks over the course of the next two weeks, the message stated.

Raymond Crowel, the director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said on Wednesday that in the past week, the department has worked with MCPS to make 190,000 tests available to all students and employees in the system.

Later in the meeting, Jeanie Dawson, of MCPS’ Office of Finance and Operations, said that all middle and high schools have received a pack of 10 KN-95 masks for each student.

By Friday, she expects that half of all elementary schools will have received the masks. The remaining elementary schools are expected to receive the masks by early next week, she said.

“The delay on some of that has been [bad] weather and getting the trucks in,” she said.

Dawson addressed the school system’s bus driver shortage, which led to the cancellation of more than 90 bus routes at one point early last week. Nixon said that on Wednesday there were only 37 routes canceled.

“We dropped significantly from where we were in the first week,” she said.

School system officials said online and in-person job fairs are among the strategies being used to attract candidates for replacement drivers.

Requesting drivers from the National Guard was another strategy, she said, but Montgomery County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said Wednesday that there were not enough people available, according to state officials.

Dawson said there is currently a “hiring pipeline” for bus drivers with about 69 applicants “waiting on different aspects of the process to get into the driver’s seat.”

“It just isn’t fast enough when you’re training, so we have a full training team that is just working beyond belief to get our bus drivers behind those wheels,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com