2021 | Schools

Will MCPS begin return to school buildings as planned in February? Not likely.

With COVID-19 cases spiking and vaccination in early phases, officials say targets won’t be met

In December, the Montgomery County Board of Education gave its stamp of approval to a plan outlining students’ return to schools. It was a glimmer of hope for families whose children have been taking classes from home for nearly a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Feb. 1, the first group of students would return to classrooms for the first time since March 13, according to the approved timeline, but that plan grows less likely as the number of COVID-19 cases in the county swells.

Since early November, each of the key COVID-19 metrics MCPS is tracking to guide its reopening plan have gotten worse. Each is higher than the maximum threshold to bring the first group of students back to a building.

Absent an unexpected reversal of the trend, or a change to the metrics set to guide MCPS reopening, buildings will not reopen as planned next month.

“I’m incredibly pessimistic,” longtime school board member Pat O’Neill said on Wednesday. “The first thing I do when I get up every day is look at the numbers in The Washington Post and Bethesda Beat, and what I see, every day, is truly alarming and scary.”

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said during a call with reporters on Wednesday that it will be challenging, at best, to reach the MCPS reopening metrics by Feb. 1.

And, despite school employees being prioritized in Phase 1B of the state and county vaccination plans, Gayles said it’s unlikely a significant number of MCPS staff members — totaling about 24,000 — will have been vaccinated by February.

Asked whether he would recommend the school district begin its transition to in-person classes, Gayles declined to give a direct answer. Instead, he said health officials will “continue conversations” with MCPS.

For the past 62 days — almost the same length as an academic quarter — Montgomery County has had a coronavirus case rate higher than the threshold set by the school district (15 cases per 100,000 residents) to begin phasing students back to buildings.

After Thanksgiving, cases spiked locally and across the state, despite officials’ pleas for residents to stay home and avoid gatherings. Health leaders predict the same will be true, and maybe worse, post-Christmas.

“We very well might see a post-seasonal — in the sense of Christmas, New Year’s — surge, and as I’ve described it, as a surge upon a surge,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said last week on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“I share the concern … that as we get into the next few weeks, it might actually get worse,” he added.

On Nov. 26, Montgomery County reported a case rate of 26.7 per 100,000 residents. Two weeks later, the rate spiked to its highest level of the pandemic: 45 — three times the threshold for the return to schools to begin.

Local data already seem to be hinting at a repeat performance after Christmas.

On Dec. 25, the case rate was 37.3, an increase following a notable drop between Dec. 16 and Dec. 20.

By Wednesday, the rate had increased to 41.8.

The county’s 14-day average test positivity rate (7.8%) — which has to dip below 5% for schools to reopen — is the highest it’s been since June 19.

It has been above 5% since Nov. 18.

The school board is scheduled to meet on Jan. 12, in part to decide if reopening is feasible. Staff reports were not yet available on Wednesday.

In early December, the school board asked MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith to review the district’s reopening criteria to see if it would be safe to loosen guidelines.

Smith returned and said he would not be comfortable changing the metrics, but did suggest allowing more students to attend in-person classes more quickly when the metrics are met. The school board agreed and voted to adopt the metrics.

The school board could modify the metrics, but each school board member has recently voiced support for the current benchmarks, so revisions during next week’s meeting are unlikely.

“We have set metrics, and, to me … I do not believe they should be modified and just throw caution to the wind,” O’Neill said. “I feel a tremendous responsibility, number one to children’s education, but also to student and staff’s health and safety. This is real life.”

Still, school district staff members are preparing for the unlikely — creating schedules, upgrading air filters, spacing desks, preparing teachers.

In total, nearly 100,000 MCPS students (roughly 60% of the student body) will remain in a virtual-only model for the second semester, according to the final results of a questionnaire sent to families. About 63,760 students plan to return to buildings when it is allowed.

An MCPS spokeswoman said in an interview Wednesday night that MCPS “remains committed to getting students back into schools as quickly as possible.”

Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said during Wednesday’s call with reporters that MCPS’ metrics could be adjusted to allow for a return with higher rates of transmission when the majority of staff members who would return have received their vaccinations.

“We may be able to evaluate the recommendations we make and consider a slightly higher level of transmission (to reopen) if it’s in the context of vaccinated staff and teachers,” he said. “We’re interested in getting there. We just want to make sure we’re going to be able to protect the faculty, as well as the students.”

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