After the first week of school, officials implemented a policy that required those in close contact with a symptomatic student to quarantine while awaiting test results, sending more than 1,700 students, mostly in elementary school, home to quarantine during the first weeks of class. Montgomery leaders have said they based the policy on county health recommendations.
School and county leaders say the policy was implemented out of an abundance of caution as students returned to school Aug. 30 amid surging cases involving the delta variant of the virus. But many parents who were hoping for a more normal school year were outraged by the policy and questioned why rapid testing for symptomatic students was not readily available.
Last week, in part to address the concerns, school officials announced an initiative to conduct rapid testing at elementary schools — where most students are ineligible for the vaccines — to reduce the need for quarantining.
School officials announced the changes to the quarantine policy at Tuesday morning’s County Council meeting, where they also presented a five-point virus response plan that includes increased transparency and community engagement.
While the council, which acts as the county Board of Health, doesn’t have any formal power over the school system’s covid-19 response, members came to the meeting pleased with the updated policy and with dozens of questions regarding its origins and why the district wasn’t equipped with tests at the start of the school year.
“It sounds a little bit like … there was some complacency over the summer and not focusing on preparing as early as possible for the school year and for the worst possible scenario,” County Council President Tom Hucker (D-District 5) said.
Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s health department, responded by pointing out the difficulties and increased pressure that have come over the past 18 months with staffing shortages in the school system.
“Staff is hard to collect in a pandemic,” Crowel said. “So we have not been sitting on our laurels, kind of lounging in a rocking chair, lounging over the summer.”
The discussion in Montgomery comes as school systems across the country navigate the first weeks of being back in the classroom. Amid rising virus concerns, surging cases and staffing shortages, school districts have the challenge of keeping students safe and keeping them in the classroom.
Many of the council’s questions surrounded the testing program, which works as an “opt-in” system, meaning each student’s parent or guardian must give testing consent. About 40 percent of school system students in pre-K through sixth grade were opted into the program as of Tuesday. The system wants to increase those numbers through its new outreach program.
Officials said state guidance issued in late June requires an opt-in system for any tests coming from the state.
Hucker questioned why it took so long to get tests in the schools if officials knew about the guidance since June. “There seems like a really inordinate amount of confusion about a hugely important matter,” Hucker said. “I’m glad they’re in our schools now.”
Interim schools superintendent Monifa McKnight said the district was in a “very different place” when the guidance came out in June. “Transmission rates for covid-19 were down in the county. We also were not navigating all the parts of the delta variant,” she said. The district has pivoted to meet current needs, officials said.
The county’s assistant chief administrative officer, Earl Stoddard, also noted how difficult rapid testing is to actually implement in the schools, especially when the district is facing nurse shortages.
“The reality is we’re struggling on the back side in our school health rooms to effectively add in rapid testing this week,” Stoddard said. “And so this week will be bumpy.”
Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2) said the problems with the quarantine policy were small in comparison to how the school system has handled the overall return to schools. Rice noted that the county had previously gotten backlash for implementing more cautious policies than other jurisdictions, but is one of the leading counties in its response to virus.
“Keep in mind, again, that while we’re being conservative, this is not something that is somehow trying to intentionally impede on the educational process of children,” Rice said. “This is leading with trying to keep our kids safe.”
Stoddard acknowledged the pitfalls of the conservative quarantine policy and emphasized the ability to adapt as officials learn more about what works to keep students safe and in the classroom.
“We’re really concerned about over-quarantining. There’s no question that we should not have 2,000 kids be quarantined in a week,” Stoddard said. “We’re equally concerned about under-quarantining because we don’t want more covid cases.”