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Montgomery schools seek help on contact tracing and move 16 more schools online

School buses leave Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Md., on Jan. 13. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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As Maryland’s largest school system struggles to cope with the effects of the omicron variant, interim superintendent Monifa McKnight asked elected officials in Montgomery County to staff its 209 schools with contact tracers and provide 190,000 at-home rapid test kits every other week.

School officials also announced 16 more schools would move to virtual learning this week, as officials continue to monitor case rates, absences, staffing shortages and other factors school-by-school. Previously, 11 schools with higher infection rates were moved to virtual learning.

Teachers at the affected schools are expected to prepare for the change Thursday while students work on asynchronous lessons, and students are expected to begin virtual instruction with their teachers on Friday, with in-person learning resuming on Jan. 31.

Speaking to the Montgomery County Council, McKnight on Tuesday reiterated her commitment to in-person education “to the greatest extent possible,” saying that the test kits and personnel to do contact tracing would “make a tremendous difference for our schools.”

Contact tracing efforts are consuming an enormous amount of time, she said. “Our school administrators and our staff have been managing this responsibility throughout the year and we’ve heard repeatedly it has taken away from their ability to focus on instruction,” McKnight said.

The at-home tests would help the system in its efforts to ensure regular testing among its 160,000 students and more than 24,000 employees, along with substitutes, McKnight said. A screening program is also done at schools, for a random sample of students who have opted into the program.

Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county’s department of health and human services, said the requests were being reviewed and more information might be available Wednesday.

County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said the test kits are “probably doable” but he is unclear why school system officials did not order them after the county shared its contractor’s name. More challenging, he said, is finding 200-plus employees to assign to schools. “We’ll look at it and try and figure it out,” he said.

More upheaval in Montgomery County's schools amid surge

Cynthia Simonson, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, called the contact tracing request “a huge step” but had concerns about the rapid tests.

She said there were no straightforward expectations with the first wave of at-home tests distributed after winter break and no transparency about how many results were reported. “I would want to see a clear plan on how these tests are being used,” she said.

The elementary schools moving to virtual are:

  • Beall Elementary School
  • Brookhaven Elementary School
  • Clopper Mill Elementary School
  • Capt. James E. Daly Elementary School
  • Gaithersburg Elementary School
  • Glenallan Elementary School
  • Sargent Shriver Elementary School
  • Twinbrook Elementary School
  • Watkins Mill Elementary School
  • Whetstone Elementary School

The middle schools moving to virtual learning are:

  • Briggs Chaney Middle School
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School
  • Lakelands Middle School
  • Neelsville Middle School

Paint Branch High School and the John L. Gildner Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents are also affected, and will be moving to virtual learning.