2021 | Schools

Less than 1% of MCPS classroom COVID-19 tests return positive results

Two positives identified at Daly Elementary

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Since Montgomery County Public Schools began “preventative” COVID-19 testing of students and teachers, there have been only two positive results, according to school district leaders.

On March 25, as part of a partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks, of Boston, Mass., MCPS began rolling out what it calls “pool” COVID-19 tests to identify asymptomatic spread of the virus in its schools.

Each week, students and staff members in chosen classrooms swab their noses and put all of the swabs into a single test tube. The tube is then tested for COVID-19, and if a positive result is reported, the people included are asked to complete an individual test.

The testing has not yet been implemented at all schools or classes, and participation is optional, but 738 pool tests had been completed as of Friday.

Two of the tests (0.27%) had returned a positive result. Both positives identified through pool testing were at Capt. James E. Daly Elementary School in Germantown.

In a letter to the school community announcing the positive cases, Daly Principal Nora Dietz wrote that everyone in the classrooms with the positive result were advised to quarantine for 14 days or until they obtain a negative COVID-19 test result.

The Montgomery County Board of Education in February approved a $5 million contract with Ginkgo Bioworks to conduct the tests through the end of the academic year. A school-by-school testing calendar is available on the MCPS website.

Since schools began reopening on March 1, MCPS has reported at least 78 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff and students. Thirty of the cases were reported between March 30 and April 15.

Of the 30 cases reported publicly since March 30, nine were determined by health officials to have posed “no risk of exposure” to other employees or students.

There were about 40,000 students back in classrooms across the county as of Friday, and 20,000 more were scheduled to return on Monday. All 208 of the district’s schools are open in some capacity.

As of Friday, the district’s online dashboard that tracks the total number of positive cases among staff members and the number of employees currently in quarantine had not been updated since March 15.

MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said the district is working to update the dashboard so it includes the same data about students. The goal is to have the update completed by the end of April, Onijala said.

The positive COVID-19 cases in MCPS between March 30 and April 15, according to the MCPS dashboard, were at:

• Northwest High School
• Poolesville High School
• Briggs Chaney Middle School
• Glen Haven Elementary School
• Viers Mill Elementary School
• Roberto Clemente Middle School
• Montgomery Blair High School
• Great Seneca Creek Elementary School
• Walt Whitman High School
• Snowden Farm Elementary School
• Northwest High School
• Wheaton Woods Elementary School
• Tilden Middle School
• James Hubert Blake High School
• Walter Johnson High School
• Capt. James E. Daly Elementary School
• Damascus High School
• Upcounty Early Childhood Center
• Olney Elementary School
• Fairland Elementary School
• Earle. B. Wood Middle School
• Sherwood Elementary School
• New Hampshire Estates Elementary School
• Clopper Mill Elementary School
• Rachel Carson Elementary School

Positive cases were also identified in at least four schools not originally listed on the dashboard, according to letters sent to the school community and obtained by Bethesda Beat.

Onijala said on Wednesday she was checking with the central office staff to determine why the letters were not posted, but said it is likely they were just overlooked by employees or that administrators forgot to notify central offices.
The schools were added to the list by Friday afternoon.

The schools that were originally not listed include:
• Cloverly Elementary School
• Maryvale Elementary School
• Whetstone Elementary School
• Brown Station Elementary School

Countywide, people younger than 19 have recently made up a greater percentage of the county’s overall positive tests each month. But the county’s top health official says the increase is expected as more adults receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Between March and December 2020, youths (up to age 19) made up about 17% of all positive cases in the county each month, though the percentage ranged from 3% in March to 22.8% in September.

In 2021, youths, on average, account for about 22% of all positive cases in the county. In March, the total was 22.1%, and through the first half of April, people younger than 19 accounted for about 26% of all cases.

In an email to Bethesda Beat on Friday afternoon, county Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles wrote that the increase is “concerning.”

But, he continued, the percentage of older residents getting vaccinated “has caused a significant decrease in the number of new cases in the older groups, thereby, decreasing the percentage of new cases in older categories.”

He wrote that in February and March, more people younger than 21 were getting tested for COVID-19, while people older than 45 were getting tested less often than in previous months.

He did not provide the test positivity rate for children, but said it has had a “consistent decrease since Dec. 2020.”

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