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As covid surges, D.C.-area schools cancel activities and go virtual again

P.G. County schools, private schools close classrooms

Montgomery County schools tightened policies for sports teams, while neighboring Howard County suspended many extracurriculars. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

As coronavirus cases climb across the D.C. region, schools scrambled to adjust Wednesday, with several moving online ahead of the winter break.

The resurgent pandemic is gripping a raft of local institutions: D.C. reported 32 percent more cases than last week, the Kennedy Center canceled two weeks of a touring musical because of cast infections and the Washington Football Team grappled with its own outbreak. And while area schools were laboring to get to their breaks safely by implementing testing and giving extra days off, this week has brought omicron-variant fears and more drastic measures.

On Wednesday afternoon, Prince George’s County in Maryland announced that it was halting in-person instruction at two middle schools and a charter school until at least Jan. 3.

“I am alarmed by the rising numbers across our schools,” the system’s CEO, Monica Goldson, wrote in an email to the community. “A two-day total last week consisted of fewer than 100 cases. This week, we saw a high of 155 cases reported in a single day.”

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Nearby Howard County on Wednesday suspended sports contests, concerts, plays and other extracurricular activities, citing cases that were surging at an “alarming rate.” Superintendent Michael J. Martirano said the suburban school system had seen nearly 300 covid-19 cases in just the past three days — quadruple the seven-day total recorded on Nov. 18 — and had more than 3,700 students and almost 150 staff members in quarantine.

“It is absolutely essential that we do all we can to keep schools open and ensure each school remains a healthy learning environment for students and staff,” Martirano wrote in a letter to the community.

Private schools were some of the first in the area to suspend in-classroom instruction. After reporting a 2.2 percent positivity rate in its upper school on Wednesday, Sidwell Friends School — which has campuses in Bethesda and the District, spanning prekindergarten to 12th grade — postponed a middle school concert and shifted its upper school to virtual learning for the rest of the week, the last before its holiday break.

“The goal of this decision is to stem the rate of infection and, we hope, enable families to continue with their plans over the break,” Bryan Garman, head of school at Sidwell, wrote in a letter to the school community.

Other D.C. campuses followed. Late Wednesday, D.C. Public Schools moved Whittier Elementary School back to virtual learning until after the holiday break, making it the first public school in the District to do so this academic year.

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Whittier parents previously had received four different letters over the past week notifying them of positive coronavirus cases in the building. Entire classes at a time were initially sent home to quarantine, as other D.C. schools have done.

“We want our families to know we’re committed to safe operations, and when we do have safe operations, we will see the best learning experience possible,” D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in an interview.

Tirzah Weiskotten, who has one son in pre-K at Whittier, said the school had barely seen any infections this year, so she was surprised when the case numbers began to climb.

Creative Minds International Public Charter School, near Fort Totten, announced Wednesday it would move to virtual learning as well. According to a news release from the school, more than 20 percent of its students were excluded from school because of coronavirus-like symptoms, quarantine or a positive coronavirus test.

D.C. Health has not recommended that all D.C. public schools move virtually, and there are no immediate plans for other DCPS schools to do so, Ferebee said.

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Although cases are rising inside Northern Virginia schools, officials there are refraining from taking similar actions. Spokespeople for the Fairfax, Loudoun, Alexandria City and Arlington school systems said their districts are not planning to switch students back to virtual learning, nor do they intend to suspend extracurriculars.

Virginia legislation passed this summer requires school districts to offer in-person learning to the vast majority of students through Aug. 1, 2022. Although that law outlines scenarios under which school boards can choose to shut down individual school buildings — if coronavirus transmission reaches a “high level” — it does not seem to allow the possibility that a district can close all its campuses.

“We are not considering a return to virtual learning at this time,” said Wayde Byard, spokesman for Loudoun County Public Schools, which enrolls about 81,000 students. He added: “While we have paused teams or activities, we are not suspending any of those division-wide.”

Officials from school systems in Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria sent similar messages in response to queries Wednesday from The Washington Post.

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Maryland counties appeared to lay out the most specific guidance. Montgomery County school officials said Tuesday they have tightened protocols for sports teams, as suggested by local health officials, to minimize spread of the virus. Now, if a team has five or more active cases, the team’s activities — including practices and games — will be suspended for 14 days.

Five Montgomery County high schools are currently affected: Paint Branch, Magruder, Poolesville, Sherwood and James Hubert Blake.

The rising caseloads have alarmed parents like Amy Creel, mother of a student at Blake, where she served for six years as a PTSA officer. One of her daughter’s classes had 19 students absent Wednesday morning, Creel said.

“There’s a real sense of fear in the community,” she said. “The kids are just really freaked out, and the parents as well.”

School system officials said Blake had 26 new cases from Dec. 4 to Dec. 12, nearly matching the previous total for the school year, with seven of the cases related to a sports team. Chris Cram, a spokesman for the school system, said that while school officials are aware of the increase, the only change in guidance from local health officials relates to sports teams.

Creel asked that her daughter, who is immunocompromised, be allowed to learn virtually until the holiday break but was turned down. “It feels very out of control,” Creel said.

More on local education

The latest: In Loudoun County, a conservative candidate and a left-leaning candidate were leading in the race for two seats on the school board. Meanwhile, a majority of incumbent school board members in Maryland’s metro area were leading in their reelection bids.

K-12 classrooms: The Montgomery County school system is revisiting safety training after a report of a student with a gun led to a campus lockdown. New safety protocols also are in the works in D.C. after a bus driver crashed a bus and was charged with a DUI. A settlement in a public records lawsuit reveals some of the emails submitted to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s education tip line.

On campus: The University of Maryland has pledged to expand aid for in-state students who have significant financial need. What the twists, turns and drops of roller coasters are teaching Johns Hopkins University students about engineering.