2021 | Schools

MCPS will use rapid COVID-19 tests when students have possible symptoms

Initiative follows updated quarantine guidelines for unvaccinated students

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Maryland’s largest school district will soon begin administering rapid-result COVID-19 tests to students who exhibit possible symptoms in an effort to avoid “excessive” quarantines.

Montgomery County Public Schools officials announced the new initiative on Wednesday, less than a week after releasing updated quarantine guidelines for unvaccinated students that require them to quarantine if they had a “close contact” with anyone who exhibits symptoms that could be related to COVID-19.

The students would have to stay in quarantine until the symptomatic person provided a negative coronavirus test or alternate diagnosis.

The updated guidelines sparked widespread concern among parents and guardians that large numbers of students — particularly those in elementary school who are not yet eligible for a vaccine — would be forced out of in-person classes unnecessarily. Some parents of children with allergies reported getting their children preemptively tested for COVID-19 and sending them to school on Wednesday with negative results.

In an interview on Wednesday morning, Board of Education President Brenda Wolff said the district has reached an agreement with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services — which employs school nurses and health technicians — to ensure rapid tests can be administered in schools to avoid unnecessarily sending classrooms of students home if someone has a symptom, like a headache, that isn’t COVID-19.

“That will alleviate a lot of quarantines,” Wolff said, adding that MCPS has requested 40,000 rapid tests from the state Department of Health. “If we don’t have them this minute, we will have them this week.”

The testing could begin as early as next week, and would likely require consent from parents for their children to participate.

The MCPS quarantine guidelines largely align with state guidelines, with an important caveat: State guidelines say close contacts should quarantine, but only if the symptomatic person had a known exposure to COVID-19. State guidelines say close contacts do not need to quarantine if the symptomatic person did not have a known exposure, but MCPS’ guidelines do not make that distinction.

During a call with reporters on Wednesday, Gayles acknowledged the divergence from state guidance, but emphasized that the close contacts in MCPS are only required to quarantine temporarily, unless there is a positive test.

Several school district and county officials, including Wolff and Gayles, said the new guidelines were implemented after a conversation with MCPS, Gayles and health department officials last week. The recommendations were not given to MCPS in writing until Tuesday, five days after they were announced publicly.

Cynthia Simonson, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, said the guidelines have caused confusion and frustration among families about the potential impact.

“What MSDE put out is a multi-layered approach with the aim of keeping students in school,” Simonson said. “What MCPS put out on Friday — based on a conversation and not written guidance from (the Department of Health and Human Services) — resulted in sweeping quarantines, needlessly putting children in temporary quarantines without any basis.”

On Wednesday, Gayles said that about 25% of students placed in quarantine during the first week of school were determined to be “true close contacts” of someone who tested positive for the virus.

He said he has worked with MCPS to “provide clarifications” about how the guidelines are applied, including in how to determine who is a close contact.

“In the last week, we have worked with our school health staff and disease control staff to make sure that folks are doing the due diligence in terms of reading investigations to find out more, and find out if there are alternative diagnoses that can explain those symptoms, and getting a fuller picture before that further advice is given,” Gayles said.

Why was rapid testing not available when the school year started?

MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said the district requested the 40,000 rapid tests from the state this week.

Spokespeople for Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Wolff and Onijala explained in interviews on Wednesday morning that the testing could not be implemented sooner because the in-school health employees had been previously deployed to support the county’s vaccination and testing efforts. The employees were not available to administer the tests, as required.

“They were needed around the county in order to support vaccination and testing programs to get our numbers in a decent range, so we could open the schools,” Wolff said.

Wolff said leaders from MCPS and the county health department met on Tuesday and the district “received clarification” that nurses and health technicians will now be available to administer the tests.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has also pledged to purchase rapid tests for the school district to supplement the effort.

In an interview Wednesday morning, Elrich said purchasing the rapid tests for the school system could be reimbursable by federal funding. He did not say how many tests the county would be willing to purchase.

“I obviously think the events of last week indicated we need to probably take a more robust approach to (testing),” Elrich said, emphasizing that an opt-out approach, instead of opt-in, might be more beneficial. “The state’s requirement was that if they were going to get tests from the state, they had to use an opt-in system. If they want to go to an opt-out system, I’m more than happy to pay for the tests.”

After the first week of school — which was abbreviated due to inclement weather — approximately 1,000 MCPS students were quarantined due to exposure to someone with COVID-19.

In a letter to Elrich on Tuesday, Wolff wrote that “under the current direction of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), excessive numbers of our students were quarantined during this first week of school.”

“We all can agree that our students need the in-person experience with educators to fully access their educational opportunities,” Wolff wrote. “Our youngest learners and our most vulnerable learners are in particular need of in-person interactions with educators. However, this is also the population of students who will be most impacted by the requirement to quarantine because our elementary students are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.”

Bethesda Beat staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this story.

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