This story was updated at 8:40 p.m. to add more context about new CDC guidance.
After what Montgomery County Public Schools leaders called a successful three-week trial of in-person classes, the school board on Tuesday decided to slightly speed up its return to buildings.
The board decided unanimously to combine the last two phases in its reopening plan. The final group of students will head back to classrooms on April 19, a week earlier than originally planned.
Some have criticized MCPS for both the prolonged school closures and the gradual phased return to buildings, spread over two months.
Among the last in the region to reopen, MCPS buildings were closed for nearly a year before the first small group of students returned on March 1. The second group returned March 15, and the next phase — which includes about 20,000 more students — will begin April 8.
The last group of students will head back to schools on April 19 — 13 months after schools closed in March 2020.
MCPS’ reopening phases and deadlines for them to start, as of Tuesday:
• March 1: Students in some special education and career and technical education programs
• March 15: More students in special education and in career and technical education programs, as well as kindergarten through third grade
• April 8: The remaining career programs, pre-kindergarten, fourth through sixth grade, and high school seniors. (The original date for this phase was April 6, but it was pushed back due to concerns about spring break-related travel.)
• April 19: Seventh grade, eighth grade, high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors.
Under the previous plan, seventh grade and high school sophomores would have returned to school buildings on April 26 instead.
During the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting, some people spoke against the faster return to buildings. Some wondered if the district has enough data and experience to successfully implement a larger-scale reopening, and others said it is too much of a strain on staff members.
They also pointed to MCPS data showing that several schools have reported positive COVID-19 cases among staff and students since reopening.
However, others said the slow reopening has contributed to an increase in student mental health problems and decrease in their academic performance.
School board members and district staff members have said in previous meetings that the phasing could be accelerated if the first two went well or were “successful.” But nobody defined “successful.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, MCPS had publicly reported at least 32 cases of COVID-19 in people who had been on school grounds since March 1. Eight of the reports said there was “no risk” of exposure to anybody else at the schools. Eighteen schools had reported at least one case.
As of March 15, all 208 schools in MCPS were open, with about 20,000 students attending in-person classes.
School board member Lynne Harris, a nurse, said that “as a public health person, I haven’t seen anything I didn’t expect to see” and emphasized she is not aware of any in-school transmission of the virus.
During a County Council meeting Tuesday morning, health officer Dr. Travis Gayles said some cases — particularly at Walt Whitman and Winston Churchill high schools — were believed to have been student-to-student transmission within athletics programs.
But, he said, “other cases seem to be more frequently associated with contact outside of the school setting.”
On March 15, the last time MCPS updated its online data dashboard, it reported 348 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began and eight staff members who had recently tested positive were in quarantine.
During the council meeting, Gayles said every MCPS staff member — more than 26,000 — has been offered a vaccine appointment through the county health department or Johns Hopkins Medicine.
During a presentation during Tuesday’s school board meeting, staff members said 13,279 employees had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Montgomery County’s COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 people was 10.2, down from 11.9 on March 1.
The county’s test positivity rate on Tuesday was 2.9%. The rate was 3.1% on March 1.
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance for schools, recommending that students in some situations could maintain 3 feet of distance between one another instead of 6 feet.
The guidance says the 3-foot recommendation applies when community transmission rates are low or moderate. It also applies when transmission rates are higher, if classes are “cohorted,” meaning the same group of students stays together throughout the day, like what often occurs in elementary schools.
Six feet is still recommended for middle and high schools when transmission rates are high and classes cannot be in cohorts, and in common areas and lunch rooms, MCPS said.
Derek Turner, the chief of MCPS engagement, innovation and operations, said the district is reviewing the CDC guidance and “planning is in progress, with a focus on elementary school, given the parameters.”
Superintendent Jack Smith said it is not yet clear if there will be any changes to local procedures in the spring semester.
“I think the most important point at this point in time is we found out about this on Friday,” Smith said. “So, will there be any opportunity? We don’t know at this time.”
School board member Rebecca Smondrowski said she is hopeful MCPS can implement the new guidance, and that it will make room for students waiting for an open seat for in-person classes.
In the winter, MCPS sent a survey to families asking them to choose between returning to schools this academic year or continuing with virtual classes. About 60% of families chose to continue with the all-virtual model.
Families are allowed to change their designation in the survey, but the district has cautioned that it might be more difficult to switch from all-virtual to partial in-person because of building capacity restraints.
Smondrowski asked for more information during the board’s next meeting in April.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org