The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

115 Montgomery County schools enter covid ‘red’ zone, then report to class

Officials consider moving schools to virtual learning, as some parents keep kids home

Students catch up in April 2021 as they arrive at Sherwood High School for in-person classes for the first time of the year. Montgomery County is struggling with the coronavirus again as omicron variant infections surge. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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One hundred and fifteen more public schools in Montgomery County hit the “red” level of coronavirus infections Wednesday night, following a remarkable one-day jump in cases throughout Maryland’s largest school system.

On Thursday, those schools opened for classes anyway, with students and teachers turning out for a regular school day — and some quietly worrying about attending classes as the highly contagious omicron variant rages.

The number of schools at which at least 5 percent of students and staff reported testing positive for the virus in the previous two weeks jumped from 11 schools on Tuesday to 126 schools by Wednesday night. Some educators said Thursday that students approached them asking for answers they did not have.

“The morale is very low among staff,” said Dominique Parker, a teacher at Wootton High School. “We know there are all of these red schools, but we have no word from MCPS as to any sort of plan.”

Montgomery school system leaders said they would consult with county health officials to evaluate whether to move all the schools to 14 calendar days of virtual instruction.

But for Thursday, only the first 11 schools from Tuesday were in virtual-learning mode. School officials said late in the day Thursday that at-home test kits would be given to families at the other 115 schools no later than Monday.

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

Some parents and advocates were stunned that the list of 115, representing more than half the district’s 209 schools, was released without assurances to the community about what the numbers mean and whether students and staff were safe as they returned to in-person learning.

“There’s no clarity around these numbers,” said Cynthia Simonson, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, who pointed out that school officials held a news conference Tuesday to announce the shift for first 11 schools. “Now there is radio silence when there are 115 more schools in the red. It goes back to the same thing every time: What is the plan?”

At many of those 115 schools newly designated as red, 6 to 9 percent of students and staff tested positive, higher percentages than in the initial group.

On Thursday, some parents kept children home, while many others let them go. Still others tried to parse the risks, sending students for some class periods but not others — opting for a teacher-led science lab, for instance, but not for lunch. At Sherwood High School, teacher Glenn Miller said one of his classes had about half its students absent and another about 25 percent.

Many support staff returned to work Thursday with greater worries after seeing their buildings in the red, said Pia Morrison, president of Local 500 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents employees including paraeducators, bus operators, cafeteria workers and building services personnel. “They are really freaked out, and they’re nervous and they’re afraid of bringing covid back to their families,” she said.

Difficult return to school in Maryland’s largest system as coronavirus surges

Mira Chung, a teacher at Walt Whitman High School, said she would love to work in person, but the uncertainty has weighed on her. “It’s just mentally stressful, not only for myself but for the kids,” she said.

Jeanie Mann-Hoehn, a mother of two in Rockville, was so frustrated by the lack of information that she emailed the school board with the subject line “We will not be participating in this super-spreader event.” Her children attend schools that were coded red Wednesday night and left open. She kept them home.

Mann-Hoehn said she is not an advocate for returning to virtual learning but thinks it may be best to “just get past omicron a little bit.” School officials should be more specific and more transparent about how they decide which schools go virtual, she said: “We should know what to expect.”

Teachers and staff were already tired and frustrated as personnel shortages strained Montgomery County schools, many of them said, with high numbers of employee absences reported. More than 1,600 requests were made for substitute teachers on Thursday alone — nearly three-quarters of which went unfilled, according to district data. Similar numbers were released for Wednesday.

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

School officials say that in making a decision to suspend in-person learning, they consider not just that 5 percent positive-test threshold but also the number of students in quarantine, the number of covid-related absences among staff and the level of spread of the virus in the school and community.

County School Board President Brenda Wolff said the color-coded system was designed to be a way of giving parents notice and emphasized that each school’s situation must be considered individually based on multiple factors. Wolff said she received information that raised questions about potential falsification of some self-reported data on positive tests.

School system spokesman Christopher Cram said that the school system believes that testing will help clarify any questions about positive results. Take-home rapid test kits will go out to all students and staff in the 115 red schools no later than Monday, he said. Parents will be asked to help students administer the tests and home — and parents will be asked to submit test results, positive or negative.

Almost as quickly as the expanded color-coded list of schools was released Wednesday night, debate began about what it should mean. Some worried about a possible overreporting of positive cases and others about possible underreporting.

Laura Stewart, an education advocate, said seven of the eight schools that are coded “green” — with low rates of positive testing — are in neighborhoods that do not have lower rates of infection. Those schools enroll high rates of children from low-income families who, she said, may face language limitations or other barriers to getting tested and reporting results. “There are a lot of ways that reporting is being suppressed,” she said.

Jennifer Reesman, a leader in Montgomery County Families for Education and Accountability, which supports keeping schools open, said that using a 5 percent metric is “completely arbitrary” and an outlier nationally. “Other systems are using staffing to determine closures, which is understandable and acceptable to the community at large,” she said.

“By coming out with this color-coded spreadsheet, they are looking for reason to close the school system,” she said, adding that the red-dominated list stokes fear in the state’s most highly vaccinated county. For many parents, she said, the question will be: “My child’s school was code red, should I send him?”

D.C. required negative coronavirus tests to return to school. Did it work?

The approach to use 5 percent as a decision point came from state health officials, who define a “school outbreak” as when 5 percent or more of unrelated students and staff test positive over a 14-day period. But the state pushed back Thursday against the approach Montgomery is taking with that threshold.

“The State of Maryland does not currently recommend any automatic trigger or threshold for suspension of in-person learning,” Andy Owen, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, told The Post in an email. “School outbreaks, as defined by MDH, should be considered only as parameters to help administrators recognize increased risk of infection spread and plan accordingly.”

Lyric Winik, president of the PTSA at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School, sharply criticized school system leadership Wednesday night, saying in a letter to school families that they had mismanaged the current situation.

“The people working at the individual schools are trying so so hard in an impossible situation, and with the complete indifference from the central office leadership,” she said Thursday. “It’s indifferent not to share basic information, to repeatedly change plans, to not communicate, to leave the burden on the schools.”

Coronavirus infections have climbed across the D.C. region, surpassing 2 million. The seven-day average of new daily cases is up 69 percent in Virginia and 42 percent in Maryland, and down 6 percent in D.C., as of Thursday, 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.

The schools now 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.