2021 | Schools

In updated COVID-19 ‘playbook,’ MCPS plans to hire health liaison, update data website

As push to get testing consent continues, district launches ‘Say Yes to the Test’ campaign

share this

Montgomery County’s public school district plans to hire a senior administrator as a health liaison providing guidance and advice as the district navigates the reopening of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hire, which will be made “soon,” Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said in an interview on Monday, is one of five initiatives the state’s largest school district plans to implement in the coming weeks as 160,000 students who spent the majority of the past 18 months learning remotely via laptops return to schools.

Other components of the district’s updated “playbook” include:

• A refreshed online portal with more data about COVID-19 cases in schools
• A COVID-19 advisory committee to provide routine feedback to MCPS leaders
• A commitment to providing more support to school administrators tasked with managing pandemic-related matters
• An outreach campaign with an aspirational goal of convincing 100% of the district’s families to opt in to COVID-19 screening testing.

The changes come less than three weeks into the new school year, as McKnight says district leaders have “learned a lot” and work to adjust to “constantly changing circumstances.”

“Quite frankly, we put in a lot of collective multi-layer prevention strategies that have been really helpful to our community, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t always come back and continue to evaluate,” McKnight said. “I think it’s important for everyone to acknowledge that we have to be prepared to adapt to constantly changing circumstances, and I emphasize that because what we know about the pandemic today is different from what we knew a year ago, or six months ago, or a month ago.”

MCPS leaders plan to announce and discuss the new measures publicly during a meeting with the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday morning.

The MCPS health official will have a medical background and will be the liaison to the county and state health departments, McKnight said. The person will review recommendations made by the departments, as well as federal guidance for school districts, to provide “recommendations regarding multi-layered prevention strategies” for virus spread in schools. The person will also offer guidance about quarantine and contact tracing, McKnight said.

The Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations last week sent a letter to school district leaders that, among other measures, called for the hiring of a dedicated medical professional to provide such guidance.

Through the first two weeks of school, roughly 2,000 students had to quarantine after either testing positive for COVID-19 or being identified as a “close contact” of someone who had. MCPS has reported about 120 confirmed positive cases of the virus among staff members and students.

MCPS posts online the messages it sends to school communities when a positive case is reported, but some parents have shared frustrations that the website is difficult to navigate and determine how many cases there are or how many people have been quarantined.

Unlike in other school districts in the region, the current website does not show how many cumulative cases there have been among staff members or students, nor does it say how many have been required to quarantine. The new website will have that data, and be more user-friendly to search for information by school, McKnight said.

As the district begins to roll out COVID-19 screening testing in its elementary schools — some were expected to begin as early as this week — the district plans to launch a “robust” outreach campaign urging families to consent to the tests.

The testing requires guardians of students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade to “opt-in” to the tests, which will be administered to a random selection of students who consent each week.

At a school board meeting last week, MCPS staff members said about 30% of families in those grades had consented to the testing.

The outreach campaign will be called “Say Yes to the Test” and highlight the importance and intended benefits of the testing — like catching asymptomatic cases of the virus before it spreads and forces more students out of classrooms. It will also push for participation in rapid testing the district will use when students have possible COVID-19 symptoms at school.

The campaign will target all students, so when the screening testing is expanded to middle and high schools (likely in the fall), there is no lag, and so there is no barrier to administering the rapid tests when a student is symptomatic.

Though unlikely, MCPS is aiming for 100% participation in its testing programs.

“We need our entire community to be on board with getting our students tested,” McKnight said.

The COVID-19 operations advisory committee will be made up of employees, students, representatives of the district’s employee unions, community organizations, the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, and community members. It will review policies and procedures and provide feedback to district leaders.

The district will also focus on providing more support to school administrators to ensure that the new responsibilities caused by the pandemic do not take them away from focusing on students’ academic and social-emotional well-being. MCPS is surveying administrators to gauge what they need.

At last week’s school board meeting, a trio of principals said contact tracing when a possible case is reported can take several hours, and pulls them from normal day-to-day duties.

“With our administrators and staff saying that they’re spending increasingly large amounts of time on responding to COVID-related issues, we are looking at what the necessary supports are and developing a targeted plan to make sure that we are providing additional assistance, internally, to our staff and schools,” McKnight said. “We are working to have that in place this week.”

MCPS officials said during the school board meeting that the district plans to hire 10 additional contact tracers to help schools when there is a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19. They will receive training from Johns Hopkins personnel.

Those hires are expected in the next month, a spokesman for the district wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat last week.

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