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Montgomery County halts plan to move higher-covid schools online

Eleven ‘red’ schools were sent to virtual learning Tuesday as cases jumped, and 115 more were being considered.

A Montgomery County school bus is parked in Rockville in July. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Montgomery County backtracked Friday on its much-debated plan to switch higher-infection schools into virtual learning mode, saying it had run afoul of state coronavirus guidance and would instead rely on a more case-by-case approach.

The reversal came three days after the plan was announced by interim superintendent Monifa McKnight, who on Tuesday said 11 public schools were moving to remote instruction, after they had crossed a 5 percent threshold for self-reported positive cases among students and staff.

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

A day later, the school system identified 115 more such “red”-level schools — yet in-person classes in those schools were not called off, leaving students and educators in buildings they worried were not safe.

On Friday morning, after state officials weighed in against a 5 percent trigger for virtual learning, McKnight and County Health Officer James Bridgers scrapped the color-coded system entirely.

“We appreciate our community’s patience and perseverance as we navigate these dynamics,” they wrote in a letter to families and staff.

McKnight and Bridgers said leaders will reassess whether the first 11 schools should remain in virtual learning, which was slated to last 14 calendar days. The additional 115 schools, representing more than half of those in Maryland’s largest system, will get priority for at-home test kits but otherwise be evaluated daily like every other school, spokesman Christopher Cram said.

Going forward, the school system’s coronavirus dashboard will include a daily total of new cases at each school and a running school-by-school total since the year began, but will no longer update the color-coded chart with the percent of students and staff testing positive by school.

That type of data will be used, however, as one of multiple factors when schools are examined by school and county health officials to decide on any limited suspensions of in-person learning in the future. Other factors include school spread, quarantines and staff absences because of covid-19. The new approach will put Montgomery in line with other large school systems, officials said.

U.S. schools face widespread student and teacher absences as omicron surges

At the end of a chaotic school week, many parents and teachers were outraged. Many parents, advocates and educators have lamented what they see as the lack of a solid plan in the 159,000-student system. Some blamed the district’s leadership and others the eight-member Board of Education.

“It’s very frustrating, and I feel we are putting all of our students and our staff and our county at risk,” said Cheryl Horn, a parent who lives in Clarksburg and teaches at a Bethesda school. “Instead of doing the right thing like they said they were going to, they have completely abandoned their plan.”

Horn said many of her students are unvaccinated, and she feels angry and scared about the change. “If I were an emoji, my face would be on fire,” she said.

School systems nationally have grappled with the tension between wanting to keep schools open and wanting to keep students and staff safe. As the omicron variant has surged, decisions have gotten trickier.

Some systems have stayed the course with in-person learning or relied more on testing, while Prince George’s County opted to go all-virtual for several weeks. In Baltimore County, the 5 percent threshold was used among seven factors. More than 30 of its schools have made a temporary switch to virtual learning, some only for certain grade levels.

Jennifer Martin, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, said many in the 14,000-member teachers union were already distressed by a lack of clarity about the process of moving schools to virtual learning. Now, she said, “there is no clarity whatsoever about how decisions will be made.”

“People are losing confidence that there is a plan, let alone a plan that takes into account the health and safety needs of students and staff,” she said.

Parents who have pushed for schools to stay open were more pleased.

Jennifer Reesman, a leader of Montgomery County Parents for Education and Accountability, said she was heartened knowing that children will be back in class in person. She lauded the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan (R) for making clear that 5 percent of cases over two weeks “was not meant to close a school down or an entire system.”

Reesman said the school system’s plan “created a week of anxiety for our community.”

Another parent, Nicole Brown, expressed optimism about the end of a 5 percent threshold, which she worried would mean an all-virtual school system by Monday. “I want healthy kids and staff together in school.”

115 more schools in Montgomery County moved into "red" zone

School officials said Friday they understood the frustrations of parents and the difficulty of change, calling it a “tough week” for the school system and families. They did not say mistakes were made. “We’re all working to ensure the best environment for students and staff and schools,” Cram said.

The focus on a 5 percent threshold of students and staff testing positive over 14 days came from the state’s school outbreak definition, but state health officials pushed back Thursday against Montgomery’s approach, saying the state does not recommend “any automatic trigger or threshold” used to suspend in-person learning.

School system officials said Friday that “robust mitigation measures” are in place in the highly vaccinated county, including masking, KN95 masks for staff, improved ventilation and increased access to testing.