2021 | Schools

MCPS will require unvaccinated students to quarantine if in close contact with symptomatic person, even without positive COVID-19 test

Move expected to affect unvaccinated elementary students most

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Students gather prior to the start of the first day of school at Gaithersburg Elementary School on Monday.

File photo

This story was updated at 11 a.m. on Sept. 4, 2021, to update information about the number of MCPS students in quarantine.

Montgomery County Public Schools on Friday announced more restrictive quarantine guidelines for unvaccinated students possibly exposed to COVID-19.

Critics on social media Friday expressed fear that the policy would lead to unnecessary time out of classrooms for children who already missed 18 months of in-person lessons.

The new guidelines require students to be moved into quarantine when they are determined to have been in “close contact” with someone who exhibits a COVID-19 symptom or symptoms. They will have to stay in quarantine until the symptomatic student returns a negative coronavirus test or receives an alternate diagnosis from a doctor. Without a negative test or alternate diagnosis, all students will be required to quarantine for 10 days.

Previously, students were required to quarantine only if they were in close contact with someone who had tested positive or tested positive themselves.

The symptoms that will result in quarantine are cough, difficulty breathing, new loss of taste or smell, fever higher than 100.4 degrees, sore throat, severe headache, diarrhea and vomiting.

MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said in an interview Friday that the new guidelines were recommended by County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles and the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services.

A spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

The goal, Onijala said, is to reduce the potential spread of the virus, especially in elementary schools, where students are not yet eligible for vaccinations.

“Our absolute goal is to maintain that in-person learning for students, but when we’re dealing with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID, safety is the top priority to ensure that we can maintain a safe learning environment for all,” Onijala said. “So, yes, it may be a temporary disruption for a few students, but we are maintaining in-person instruction for many more students, and that is our goal to be able to do that this entire school year.”

The district defines a “close contact” as being within 6 feet of someone who tested positive for COVID-19 (or, as of Friday, is exhibiting symptoms) while eating, or for more than 15 minutes during a 24-hour period, regardless of mask use.

MCPS’ guidelines say students who were in a classroom within 3 feet of someone who tested positive or who exhibited symptoms for 15 minutes or more during a 24-hour period are required to quarantine, regardless of mask use. (Face coverings are required to be worn in MCPS buildings and on school buses, regardless of people’s vaccination status.)

The guidelines say people who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine after an exposure to the virus, unless they are symptomatic. It is recommended that people who are fully vaccinated get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after exposure to the virus, but they can continue to report to in-person classes while waiting for test results.

Parents took to social media on Friday to criticize the updated quarantine guidelines, with many calling them overly conservative. Some said they would lead to too much missed face-to-face class time for the youngest students for illnesses that turn out to not be COVID-19.

Elementary school students who are required to quarantine but are not sick will receive live virtual instruction from a teacher during the school day. The instruction would be provided by a teacher — likely not their normal classroom teacher — during the teacher’s planning period.

“It will be live instruction on a separate schedule, separate from what’s happening in the physical school,” Onijala said in a message to Bethesda Beat.

Students who test positive and are sick will be excused from their school work while they recover and can make up assignments when they are well, she said.

If an entire elementary school class is required to quarantine, the class would be moved to a virtual format, and taught by the regular classroom teacher.

For middle and high school, students who must quarantine will be given class materials, and their teachers will provide time for live virtual check-ins during the teachers’ planning periods.

Because people 12 and older are eligible to be vaccinated and about 85% of eligible Montgomery County residents are fully vaccinated, MCPS does not expect full classes at the secondary level to need to quarantine.

As of 3 p.m. Friday, MCPS had reported at least 25 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among people who had been at schools since the start of the academic year on Monday.

Onijala said about 1,000 students across the district are quarantined due to COVID-19 exposures.

There are about 160,000 students enrolled in MCPS’ 209 schools this year, according to district leaders.

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