Montgomery County Public Schools officials said on Thursday that problems with a COVID-19 testing program have been resolved and it will begin next week.
A week of back-and-forth discussion with state health officials jeopardized the rollout of the testing program, which is intended to reduce the number of unvaccinated students required to quarantine.
Over the past two months, county and school district officials have detailed plans to use a “test-to-stay” protocol.
The protocol allows 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.
Particularly, officials planned to target students who were exposed when unmasked — like at lunch — and otherwise would be required for 10 days.
On Nov. 1, 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 the test-to-stay program could be used. They said students who were exposed to the virus when either they or the infected person were unmasked — like at lunch — would be eligible to use the test-to-stay program.
The next day, however, on Nov. 2, MCPS received “unexpected” new guidance from the state Department of Health, saying test-to-stay in that situation is inappropriate, according to Jimmy D’Andrea, the chief of staff for Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight.
A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.
During a meeting with the County Council on Tuesday, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said the county is “not launching test-to-stay.”
“That is not to say we’re not ready to do it. If the state changes its guidance, we’ll immediately move to do it,” Stoddard said. “… We have gone as far as the state will allow us to go, but if they do change the guidance they provided us on test-to-stay, we’re happy to implement it for those unmasked exposures.”
In an interview on Thursday morning, D’Andrea said MCPS and county health officials have held several meetings with the Maryland Department of Health over the past week, and were told on Wednesday afternoon it could implement the test-to-stay program.
The test-to-stay option will only be used when exposures occur during lunch. It is not allowed when exposed during “high-risk” activities with “forced exhalation.”
High-risk activities include singing, contact sports, playing wind or brass instruments, or other activities that produce heavy breathing.
MCPS and the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services will provide routine data to the state about the program to “ensure it is safe and effective,” D’Andrea said.
The program will launch as a pilot program in a “small number” of schools next week. The district did not say which schools.
The goal is to gradually expand throughout the district after the Thanksgiving holiday.
Under the test-to-stay program, when exposed during unmasked situations, students will need to take a rapid COVID-19 test each morning for five school days after the exposure. They can remain in school as long as the tests are negative.
Families can choose to do a 10-day quarantine instead. The quarantine could end after seven days, if the student submits a negative COVID-19 test taken on or after the fifth day.
Other changes announced last week to MCPS’ quarantine guidelines remain in effect.
The most notable change was that for the first time, unvaccinated students who are determined to be “close contacts” to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 will not be required to quarantine if they were wearing a face covering at the time of the exposure and have consented to surveillance testing conducted by the school district.
Previously, close contacts were required to quarantine regardless of whether they were wearing a mask or consented to testing.
Even though they won’t be excluded from classes anymore, the students who are close contacts but not required to quarantine will be “expected to quarantine outside the school setting” and cannot participate in school-sponsored “high-risk” activities.
Other changes were:
• Students who were exposed to someone who tested positive and were not wearing masks at the time of exposure (like at lunch) will be required to quarantine for 10 days. The quarantine could end after seven days, if the students submit a negative COVID-19 test taken on or after the fifth day.
• Students who were exposed during a high-risk activity — regardless of mask usage — will be required to quarantine for 10 days. The quarantine could end after seven days, if the students submit a negative COVID-19 test taken on or after the fifth day.
• Students who have been infected with the virus in the last 90 days, but are not currently infected, will not need to quarantine.
Students who have tested positive for the virus or were exposed and are symptomatic will still have to quarantine for the entire 10 days.
Between the first day of school on Aug. 30 and Nov. 5, there had been 843 reported cases of the virus among staff and students, and students had been quarantined 8,229 times, according to the school district’s online COVID-19 dashboard.
If a student has been quarantined more than once, each time is counted in the district’s total number, according to district officials.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com