2021 | Schools

MCPS will roll out COVID-19 test-to-stay protocol to reduce student quarantines

District, health department trying to balance expediency with burden on nurses, technicians

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In another effort to limit the number of students forced to quarantine when possibly exposed to COVID-19, the Montgomery County school system plans to soon roll out a “test-to-stay” protocol.

The new initiative is gaining popularity across the country as school districts try to balance the need for in-person instruction with the need to limit the spread of COVID-19.

It would allow students who had been in close contact with someone who tested positive to remain in classes as long as they don’t have symptoms and test negative for the virus daily, rather than being moved into a precautionary quarantine.

The tests will be supplied and administered by the school district’s health staff, as long as the student’s parents or guardians consent.

Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight and school board President Brenda Wolff have previously voiced support for the test-to-stay program, but asked for help from county officials to implement it.

School district and health officials plan to introduce the effort to schools gradually, focusing first on schools and students that have been affected most academically by the pandemic, according to Acting County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard.

He pointed to data released this week by the school district that shows many students — particularly minority and low-income students, and those in special education or English language learner programs — were less likely to be proficient in math and reading at the end of the last school year, compared to pre-pandemic years.

The goal is to expand the program as quickly as possible to all schools, but the county Department of Health and Human Services is working with an outside agency to hire additional health room employees to support the effort.

When the school year began, there were about 40 vacant nurse and health technician positions throughout the district. Through the first four weeks of the year, four nurses and one technician have quit because of the increased demand that COVID-related responsibilities have added to the job, Stoddard said.

“We understand the pressure and urgency to implement this, but we’re also concerned about breaking our health rooms,” Stoddard said. “The introduction of rapid testing in the speed at which we implemented it caused some issues, so we’re very interested in implementing test-to-stay, but we need to make sure that we’re not going to further tax our health room staff.”

As the contracting agency identifies employees who can assist MCPS, they undergo the district’s background check process, then can get to work, likely in the coming weeks, Stoddard said.

‘At the forefront’

MCPS came under fire this month when it announced that all unvaccinated students would quarantine if they were determined to have been in close contact with someone who had symptoms that could be associated with COVID-19.

The district quickly backtracked, saying less than two weeks later that it would no longer require quarantines of close contacts unless the symptomatic student tests positive or was recently exposed to someone who has COVID-19. Those students considered close contacts will not be directed to quarantine in the absence of a test result.

Through the first three weeks of school, about 245 staff members and students had tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 3,000 students identified as “close contacts” had been quarantined. There are about 160,000 students in the district and about 25,000 employees.

While some parents have appreciated the cautious approach to virus spread prevention, others have been frustrated that, after 18 months of mostly virtual classes, children have missed more face-to-face instruction, sometimes unnecessarily.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in a statement to The New York Times this week that it does “not recommend or endorse a test-to-stay-program,” but is “working with multiple jurisdictions who have chosen to use these approaches to gather more information.”

Stoddard said he is not concerned about implementing test-to-stay in MCPS without the endorsement of the CDC.

“It’s one of those things where if you want to be at the forefront of what the science is saying, you can do that, but the CDC is data-based in the sense that they require demonstration, which is hard to do if you never do something.”

There have been studies, including one published last week in the medical journal The Lancet, showing that schools that use the protocol do not have higher case rates than those that require all close contacts to quarantine.

MCPS’ protocol will look “largely similar” to what schools are using in Massachusetts, Stoddard said, where rapid-result tests are administered to close contacts daily for a week.

MCPS will use tests provided by the Maryland Department of Health to support the rollout of the program. The district is partnering with an outside agency to hire staff members to administer the tests.

In a memo to school district leaders across the state on Thursday, Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Jinlene Chan wrote that nearly 166,000 COVID-19 tests have been provided to schools so far this academic year. MCPS had about 53,000 tests remaining from the last school year and Montgomery County officials have supplied additional tests, as well.

This month, MCPS announced it had launched a new outreach campaign, called “Say Yes to the Test,” with a lofty goal of convincing 100% of students’ families to consent to in-school COVID-19 testing.

School district spokesman Chris Cram said Friday that about one-third of the district’s 160,000 students had consented to the testing.

Over the next several weeks, the district plans to send messages home with students and do “targeted outreach campaigns” and go door-to-door in some neighborhoods to answer questions and promote the importance of COVID-19 tests in schools.

“We’re going to work hard to get as many people as possible to sign on,” Cram said. “This is the latest, most important way for us to reduce quarantines.”

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