The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Montgomery County to keep 11 schools virtual this week; will give all students KN95 masks

Interim superintendent Monifa B. McKnight apologized to families, saying the system ‘should have done a better job communicating with you’ last week.

A school bus driver pulls up on April 8, 2021, as students return to in-person school at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Md. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Montgomery County Public Schools announced Sunday that 11 schools with a spike in coronavirus cases will remain virtual this week and return to in-person classes Jan. 18. They also say they will give all students in the county KN95 masks in an effort to limit coronavirus transmission in schools.

In a letter to the community, interim superintendent of schools Monifa B. McKnight apologized to families, saying the system “should have done a better job communicating with you” last week about changing covid guidelines, disruptions from bus staffing shortages, and snow closures and delays.

“I apologize for any stress this caused our staff, students, and community members,” she wrote in the letter, in which she also disclosed that she had tested positive for the coronavirus.

McKnight emphasized her commitment to keeping schools open: “Switching any school to virtual learning — even for a short period of time — will be a last resort.”

The 11 county schools that have been virtual this year were scheduled to return Jan. 18, but an updated coronavirus policy changed the threshold for school closure, throwing that date into question until Sunday.

The 11 schools were moved to remote instruction after they had crossed a 5 percent threshold for self-reported positive cases among students and staff. The school system quickly identified 115 more such “red”-level schools — yet in-person classes in those schools were not called off, leaving students and educators concerned they were not safe.

State officials then weighed in against a 5 percent trigger for virtual learning, and McKnight and County Health Officer James Bridgers scrapped the color-coded system entirely.

McKnight announced Sunday other measures aimed at keeping students and staff safe, including giving all students KN95 masks over the next two weeks, as they did for staff last week.

At an “emergency virtual town hall on schools” Sunday hosted by County Council member Tom Hucker, some people who spoke out called for a virtual option for families who do not feel safe sending students for in-person learning as the omicron variant spreads.

Sher Anderson Petty, a teacher speaking as a private citizen, said she believed she may have brought the virus “home from my school for the holidays.” She tested positive Dec. 26, she said, and her whole family became infected, including her 79-year-old mother-in-law. She works at one of the 11 “red” schools and said she just learned the school would remain virtual until Jan. 18.

“It’s been super stressful not knowing from one moment to the next what’s happening with us,” she said, noting that she is still managing symptoms and has been able to teach virtually. “We’re all just doing our best, and this is really terrifying. I brought it home once. I am very afraid.”

The school system announced it plans to give students and staff take-home rapid tests this week. They asked parents to help students administer them at home, and submit the results — positive or negative — on the MCPS covid-19 reporting form by Jan. 14. They also asked parents to report if students receive positive results from a test other than the one provided by the school system.

The letter said students who test positive need to isolate for 10 days after the result, or 10 days from the start of symptoms, whichever is earlier, while teachers who test positive or suspect they are must follow the same guidelines, but for only five days, rather than 10.

The letter explained that, “in the future, the number of isolation days may be reduced for students as community-level data regarding the transmission or outbreak of the virus decreases.”

Bus driver shortages have been another major problem, with so many bus drivers out last week that 75 routes were canceled and hundreds of students in the county were forced to find their own rides.

McKnight said schools will post bus disruptions and route cancellations on its transportation page and on the MCPS homepage by 7 p.m. the night before school, but she acknowledged that there may be additional disruptions posted in the morning.

She said the school system is recruiting more drivers, prioritizing routes for students with special needs, deploying support staff and supervisors on routes and having staff drive multiple routes.

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.

McKnight acknowledged the difficulty the pandemic has brought to families, while describing her own bout with the virus.

“I know that many of our families are struggling with the impact of the pandemic right now, and that includes my family: I tested positive for COVID-19 early last week,” she wrote. “Thankfully, my symptoms have been mild, and I am working at home while isolating.”