2021 | Schools

In two weeks, MCPS reports 30 COVID-19 cases, but no evidence of in-school transmission

Some schools dispute state ‘outbreak’ designations

Over the past two weeks, Montgomery County Public Schools has reported 30 cases of COVID-19 in people who had recently been on school grounds.

Since schools began reopening on March 1, MCPS has reported 47 confirmed or “presumed positive” cases. After contact tracing was conducted by the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, 12 cases were determined to have no risk of exposure to other staff or students, according to a review of notification letters sent to families by MCPS.

Of the 30 cases reported since March 16, 12 were determined to have had no risk of exposure to others.

MCPS does not disclose how many students are advised to quarantine or get a COVID-19 test after a possible exposure to the virus on campus.

All 208 of the district’s schools are open for in-person classes, and about 20,000 out of 161,000 students have returned to schools.

MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said the district has not found evidence of any in-school transmission of the virus.

During recent press conferences, County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles has said the health department was concerned about some potential student-to-student transmission in athletic programs, but otherwise, he does not believe the virus is being transmitted in schools.

Gayles has said he expected there would be some cases when schools reopen, but “there’s no magic number” of what to expect.

A spokeswoman for the health department did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Three MCPS-related cases reported in early March were considered “presumed positives,” meaning the person was exhibiting two or more COVID-19 symptoms, but had not yet received a test, Onijala said.

The district is no longer reporting symptomatic students as “presumed positive cases,” she said.

On Wednesday, the state reported two “outbreaks” in MCPS: Two cases at Winston Churchill High School and two cases at Montgomery Blair High School

The state defines a COVID-19 “outbreak” in schools as:

• At least two cases among students and staff members within 14 days who do not live together but are epidemiologically linked
• Three or more classrooms with cases that meet the above criteria within the past 14 days
• 5% or more of students and/or staff members with confirmed cases within 14 days (a minimum of 10 unrelated cases).

Some schools have disputed their designations on the state’s “outbreaks” list.

Bullis School, for example, was listed the week of March 15 as having an “outbreak” consisting of two cases. School leaders contested the designation, and state officials said they “received additional information and determined recent cases … did not constitute an outbreak” and removed Bullis from the list.

During a recent school board meeting, MCPS Chief of Engagement, Innovation and Operations Derek Turner said MCPS disagrees with the state’s determination the same week that there were COVID-19 “outbreaks” at Winston Churchill and Walt Whitman high schools.

The district did not provide more information about the dispute when asked three times over the past two weeks, aside from a spokeswoman saying the district believed the state “made a mistake.”

Both remained on the active outbreak list the week of March 22. Whitman was still listed in the latest update on March 31, while Churchill was not.

Charlie Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, did not respond to three requests for comment, nor did Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Department of Health.

On Tuesday, Onijala said, to her knowledge, the cases at Whitman and Churchill are all “unrelated,” meaning they would not meet the state’s definition of an outbreak.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 10 cases had been reported at Whitman, and two had been reported at Churchill.

Onijala said the district believes the number of cases associated with its schools is reflective of the increasing metrics countywide.

In Montgomery County, the COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 people has risen slightly since early March, when schools began reopening. The rate on March 1 was 11.9 before dipping as low as 9.1 on March 9. The rate on Tuesday had risen to 12.3 cases per 100,000 people.

The test positivity rate has remained steady at about 2.9%.

MCPS has not updated its online data dashboard since March 15, when it posted that 348 staff members had reported having a positive COVID-19 test since the pandemic began more than a year ago. At the time, eight staff members who recently tested positive were in quarantine.

There are about 25,000 employees in MCPS.

Cases reported in MCPS since March 16, according to the Montgomery County Department of Health:

• March 17: Quince Orchard High School (no risk of exposure to others)
• March 17: Roscoe Nix Elementary School (no risk of exposure to others)
• March 18: Glen Haven Elementary School (no risk of exposure to others)
• March 18: Walt Whitman High School (no risk of exposure to others)
• March 18: Charles R. Drew Elementary School (no risk of exposure to others)
• March 19: Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (no risk of exposure to others)
• March 19: East Silver Spring Elementary
• March 22: Greencastle Elementary School (Some fourth- and fifth-grade classes “closed until further notice”)
• March 22: Lake Seneca Elementary School
• March 22: Two cases at Walt Whitman High School
• March 22: Gaithersburg High School
• March 22: Bells Mill Elementary School
• March 23: Walt Whitman High School
• March 23: Montgomery Blair High School
• March 23: Quince Orchard High School (no risk of exposure to others)
• March 23: Sherwood High School
• March 24: Walt Whitman High School
• March 24: Greenwood Elementary School
• March 25: Damascus High School (no risk of exposure to others)
• March 26: Rockville High School (no risk of exposure to others)
• March 26: Montgomery Blair High School
• March 26: Walter Johnson High School
• March 26: Paint Branch High School
• March 27: Georgian Forest Elementary School
• March 27: Gaithersburg High School (Some classes moved virtual)
• March 27: Robert Frost Middle School
• March 29: Carl Sandburg Learning Center (no risk of exposure to others)
• March 29: Kensington Parkwood Elementary School (no risk of exposure to others)
• March 29: Walt Whitman High School
• March 29: Damascus Elementary School

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