2022 | Schools

UPDATED: MCPS ditches 5% threshold for reviewing whether to suspend in-person classes

District says it received ‘clarification’ on guidance from state officials

share this
Montgomery County Public Schools Logo

This story was updated at 4 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2022, to include more information.

Less than a week after announcing a threshold for when schools might pivot to virtual classes, Montgomery County Public Schools leaders said they will ditch the measure.

In a community message on Friday afternoon, MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight and Montgomery County Acting Health Officer James Bridgers wrote that there will no longer be an “automatic trigger” for the review of whether in-person learning should be suspended at its schools.

On Tuesday, the pair announced that any school with 5% or more of its students and staff members testing positive for COVID-19 might shift to virtual classes.

The first 11 schools to hit that mark began virtual classes on Wednesday. Friday’s message said those families “will receive more information by Sunday afternoon regarding next steps.”

The change was made following “clarifications” from state officials “on appropriate use of thresholds for transitioning to virtual learning,” the MCPS message said. State officials do not recommend any threshold for the suspension of in-person learning, McKnight and Bridgers wrote.

“Moving forward, MCPS and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) will examine schools on a case-by-case basis to determine if any particular school needs to transition to virtual learning for a designated period of time,” the message said. “Factors considered will continue to include the number of students and staff who have tested positive; the number of students in quarantine; the number of staff absent for COVID-related reasons; and the level of spread of the virus in the school.”

On Thursday, in a social media exchange with Montgomery County residents concerned about MCPS’ use of the 5% threshold, Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, wrote: “The 5% is not a metric for the suspension of in-person learning or a conversation about it, and should not be used that way by any school system.”

Ricci also posted a statement from the Maryland Department of Health that shared the same sentiment.

The statement said the Department of Health “encourages school administrators to make every possible effort to keep schools open for in-person learning, and any suspension of in-person learning should be considered only as a last option, after exhausting all possible alternatives.”

MCPS first announced it would use the 5% metric during a call with reporters in December. McKnight said at the time that the policy would go into effect after the winter break.

MCPS announced on Tuesday — before any students had returned from the break — that the first 11 schools met the threshold and would shift to virtual classes the next day.

At the same time, district leaders announced they would post the color-coded data each school day. On Wednesday, another 115 schools met the threshold to possibly close, but all remained open for in-person classes.

On Thursday, MCPS did not post the updated data, and did not explain why until Friday afternoon when McKnight and Bridgers’ letter was sent to the community, axing the threshold altogether.

A pattern

This is not the first COVID-19 topic on which MCPS leadership has said “clarified” guidance from the state has caused quick and often confusing changes in its policies.

For example, in November, MCPS and the county’s Department of Health and Human Services held a press conference to announce changes to the district’s quarantine policy, and outlined when a “test-to-stay program” could be used.

The program aims to allow some students considered “close contacts” to someone who tested positive to remain in classes, as long as they don’t have symptoms and they test negative for the virus daily.

The next day, however, MCPS received “unexpected” new guidance from the state Department of Health, saying test-to-stay in that situation is inappropriate, according to district leaders.

Within days, MCPS officials said they had held several meetings with state health leaders and resolved the problem, and would implement the program in a limited capacity.

Earlier in the school year, there was a series of fast-paced changes to the district’s quarantine policy when a student is exposed to COVID-19.

On Friday evening of the first week of school, MCPS officials announced that any unvaccinated student considered a close contact of someone with a symptom that could be associated with COVID-19 would be required to quarantine until the symptomatic student provided a negative test.

The guidance differed from what is recommended by state and federal health officials, who did not advise students to quarantine while waiting for test results.

Less than two weeks later, MCPS officials backtracked, announcing they would no longer require the “close contacts” to quarantine while awaiting test results.

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