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Eleven Montgomery County schools hit ‘red’ covid levels, move online

Surges put 89 more schools at risk of closing, after more than 5,600 positive tests over winter break

A Montgomery County school bus pulls up to Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

With coronavirus cases surging, in-person learning was suspended Tuesday at 11 public schools in suburban Montgomery County, with another 89 schools at risk for similar action, in the district’s first significant detour from traditional instruction this school year.

Montgomery County interim superintendent Monifa McKnight announced that the 11 higher-infection schools would move to virtual learning for 14 calendar days, effective Wednesday, after each crossed a 5 percent threshold of positive tests. But McKnight pledged that Maryland’s largest school district, with 209 schools, would keep prioritizing in-classroom learning.

“When it is possible to do so safely, we must continue to preserve the in-person learning experience and mitigate the learning disruption that the pandemic has already caused,” she said. “For the majority of our schools, in-person learning can and will continue. We have mitigation measures that keep schools safe and lower transmission rates.”

D.C.-area parents and teachers split over return-to-school plans

Among those measures, McKnight cited the school system’s mask mandate and a recent decision to provide KN95 masks to teachers and staff members this week. The district is also providing at-home rapid tests over the next 10 days and a districtwide random-sample screening program to identify students at school who test positive.

As of 6 a.m. Monday, 5,680 students and staff members had reported having tested positive over the winter break, including 4,677 during the break’s last five days.

“This absolutely reflects a trend that we are seeing across the Washington, D.C., region,” McKnight said.

Yet most area school systems are planning a return to full in-person learning following this week’s snow days. Prince George’s County in Maryland is the major exception, having moved to virtual instruction for all students shortly before winter break. In D.C., students must show proof of a negative test result before they set foot in classrooms, expected Thursday.

In Montgomery, school officials said Tuesday that many employees are testing positive, leading to “abnormally high staff absences across our school system, including among teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers,” McKnight said. The absences exacerbate staffing shortages that were already a problem, she said.

Can ‘test-to-stay’ keep kids in schools safely? A Maryland system is finding out.

The schools now moving online include one high school, Seneca Valley, and two middle schools, Hallie Wells and Roberto Clemente, along with seven elementary schools: Cannon Road, North Chevy Chase, Monocacy, Forest Knolls, Rosemont, Sherwood and Waters Landing. Rock Terrace School, for students with cognitive disabilities, is also included.

A new county system introduced Tuesday shows school-by-school infection levels, sorting schools by three colors. Schools are designated as red when 5 percent or more of unrelated students and staff members have tested positive in the previous 14 days, at which point a decision is made about whether to go virtual. Schools are labeled yellow when their cases approach that threshold, with 3 percent to 5 percent of students and staff members affected. Schools are marked as green when cases are below 3 percent.

The 11 district schools that are switching to virtual are designated as red schools, while 89 more are yellow.

But Tuesday’s decision drew criticism from a mix of parents and educators who pointed out that the decision to close each school was based on self-reported data that they believe is unreliable.

Some parents who have been calling for schools to stay open — and had been looking forward to increased use of a “test-to-stay” protocol in Montgomery — said the school system had broken its promise to make a decision based on in-school spread and to use the 5 percent cutoff as one indicator, not an automatic pivot point.

All schools over 5 percent were switched to virtual learning, according to school district data, although officials said each decision had been considered carefully, with advice from the county health department.

“Our schools have not been open,” said Jennifer Reesman, a leader in Montgomery County Parents for Education and Accountability. “We’re closing schools due to community spread and keeping everything else open. Kids have not been in buildings for 13 days. There has been no in-school transmission.”

Some parents said they were worried about what comes next, with 89 schools in the yellow zone. “Unless they make a commitment and policy decision, half of the kids in the school system will be out of school by Monday,” Reesman predicted.

Jennifer Martin, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, said the self-reported data is almost certainly underreported, particularly among families facing language barriers or other obstacles. The 14,000-member teachers union has urged that testing be done before students and staff members return.

Without testing, Martin said, “How do we know we have captured the full extent of the problem?”

Covid-19 cases, vaccination rates and hospitalizations in the D.C. area

Others were frustrated that the school system’s plans were not more proactive, nearly two years after the pandemic began.

“Omicron was not some kind of sneak attack,” said Lyric Winik, PTSA president at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. “Where were the advance plans for handling another covid influx?”

Winik also said the school system has still not managed to meet the varied needs of families: While some are concerned most about exposures that could endanger medically fragile relatives, others are desperate to keep students in school because virtual learning was a “disaster” for them. The failure to serve both groups “ends up placing school families at odds with each other,” she said.

Coronavirus infections have climbed across the D.C. region, surpassing 2 million. The seven-day average of new daily cases is up 114 percent in Virginia, 3 percent in the District and 89 percent in Maryland as of Tuesday, according to a Washington Post tracker.

The test positivity rate in Montgomery County is 27 percent, according to state data — more than 25 times what it was in the summer and more than eight times what it was in early December.

“I think it’s the wisest decision they could have made,” said Hannah Donart, a mother of two children at Monocacy Elementary, one of the schools that was switched to virtual instruction.

Donart, who works in public health, said two of her children tested positive over the holiday, following the family’s first air-travel experience of the pandemic. Donart and her children, all vaccinated, wore highly protective masks and face shields, she said, but she noticed other passengers maskless and coughing — and one of her children tested positive three days later.

“It was a relief actually,” she said of the move to virtual instruction. “I’m afraid of passing it on.”

Students from the 11 schools will start with full-day live instruction Thursday, school officials said, following a day of teacher planning and asynchronous instruction.

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5. To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools. American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure.

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules.

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.