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Just weeks in, Washington-area families confront the reality of this school year: Quarantines

Students prepare to enter Stratford Landing Elementary School in Alexandria on Aug. 23
Students prepare to enter Stratford Landing Elementary School in Alexandria on Aug. 23 (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Just a few weeks into the new school year, thousands of students and teachers across the Washington region have been quarantined for potential exposure to the coronavirus, worrying parents who had hoped for something closer to what was normal before the pandemic.

While the percentage of affected students is not large compared with the overall student enrollment, the school year is still in its early days, and many worry the figures portend a year that will be uneven and disrupted and leave some students to switch back and forth to remote learning without warning.

Families are already left scrambling for child care. Schools are searching for substitute teachers and others to fill in for those quarantined. And even after an entire school year of virtual learning, districts have been left flat-footed as they figure out how to provide quarantined students an education from home.

In D.C., the entire sixth grade at Johnson Middle in Southeast Washington — 129 students — was placed in quarantine. The D.C. school system released few details but said all the students had been in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. Students are now attending classes from home.

At Rocketship Public Schools, a charter network with three elementary campuses, 29 staff members and dozens of students are in quarantine. Twenty-seven of the staff members were unvaccinated, and most are at home because they came in contact with teachers who tested positive, not students. The network recently announced a tighter vaccine mandate for its staff.

D.C. charters begin to mandate vaccine as condition of employment, going beyond city requirement

“We know that just like in the world, that there will be cases of covid, and our systems to detect those cases are robust, and our systems to isolate those cases are equally robust,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Wednesday. “So from my perspective, at this point, all of those detection systems and reporting systems are working the way they have been designed.”

D.C. public schools are back in person with some exceptions, but parents and guardians are debating whether it’s safe as the pandemic continues. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

In D.C., so far, according to city data, health department contact tracers have advised 912 of the 52,000 D.C. Public Schools students and 140 staffers out of more than 7,500 to quarantine. Asymptomatic people who are vaccinated are included in city numbers but do not have to quarantine.

So far, the city says that it has detected 87 positive student cases in the public school system as of Sept. 8. City officials said Friday that their asymptomatic testing program has conducted 4,109 tests, with 24 returning positive. The other positive student cases have largely been reported by families.

D.C. parent Ben Magarik said his 3-year-old son was sent home to quarantine after someone in his prekindergarten class reported a positive case. Magarik said the elementary school has strong safety protocols and administrators communicated well with his family about the positive case, but he said he believes the quarantine did not need to extend seven days.

“We feel that calling us Tuesday morning at 7:30, an hour before he has to be there at school, and saying let’s get him tested, that seems like the right thing to do,” Magarik said. “The length of quarantine for seven days for a 3-year-old, even after testing negative, seems a lot.”

What to know about school masks, staff vaccines and quarantines in the D.C. area

In nearby Montgomery County, which opened on Aug. 30, more than 1,700 students had to quarantine in the first five days,— a phenomenon that set off an uproar in the suburban Maryland school system.

Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest system in Virginia with 180,000 students, has seen about 500 student and staff coronavirus cases between Aug. 13 and Wednesday, the district said. It also sent 340 students and 53 staffers into quarantine.

Loudoun County detected 97 virus cases among its 81,000 students and 14 among its staff, putting 275 students and eight staff members in quarantine. Eleven student cases were reported in the Arlington Public Schools system of 23,000 students as of Friday, with four students being sent into quarantine.

School districts have different approaches to educating quarantined students.

In Alexandria, students sent home can watch live streams of their classrooms on Zoom, said Gerald R. Mann Jr., the district’s executive director of instructional support. The teacher will focus solely on the in-person learners and catch up with quarantining students later, during “office hours” that span between 20 and 45 minutes, depending on grade level. If an entire class or school must quarantine, the district’s guidelines state it will switch to virtual learning for that group.

Other districts appeared to have little planned on how to continue teaching during these early quarantine days.

“I mean, there are bumps in the road at the start of anything, but this was also occurring all of last year,” said Crystal Young, a parent of a student in Loudoun County. Young’s 9-year-old daughter was forced to quarantine because she was exposed to the virus in school and had no academic work the first several days at home. “I feel like there should have been more preparation,” Young said.

School systems expected some quarantines, but officials hoped that looser guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would make them less of a defining factor this school year. Over the summer, the CDC said that in school settings, if a student is properly masked and at least three feet from an infected classmate who was also masked, they are not considered a close contact and do not need to quarantine. Unmasked people, or those who are within three feet of someone with the virus, need to quarantine only if they were near that person for at least 15 minutes.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said over the summer that, given the looser health guidance, he did not expect whole classrooms to be quarantined, a regular occurrence last year.

But D.C. city officials say that, in addition to the sixth-grade class at Johnson, other entire classrooms have been quarantined. While students are waiting at home, they are participating in live, virtual learning, according to the school system.

Students who are just one of a few people in their classroom in quarantine or isolation — which accounts for the bulk of those removed from the classroom — are doing asynchronous learning without teacher instruction.

In Montgomery County, parents desperate for a more normal school year have been furious that so many students are being sent home to quarantine. Some say the orders came after a single student coughed or had a headache.

“Nearly half of our kindergartners — three of seven classes, along with their teachers and families — were all in quarantine even though we have yet to see a positive case,” Kea Anderson, Parent Teacher Association president at New Hampshire Estates and Oak View elementary schools in Silver Spring, said in testimony to the school board.

Anderson said it is unrealistic to expect that young children will be able to “fully participate in remote learning at a moment’s notice” or that all families can quickly summon the resources to get a child tested.

Amid the wave of distress, Montgomery County school officials announced a new testing initiative Wednesday that they hope reduces the spread of the virus and potential quarantines.

Starting next week, students showing potential symptoms of a coronavirus infection — a headache, a cough, labored breathing — can be tested at elementary schools, school officials said. A negative test would clear the way for staying in school and not trigger a larger quarantine. The school system has requested 40,000 rapid tests from the state of Maryland.

With hundreds quarantined, new school testing program to begin in Montgomery County

As school officials discussed the issue at a recent meeting, they said the testing initiative would get them on the right track.

Karla Silvestre, vice president of the Montgomery County school board, said the goal is to have kids in school, learning in front of a teacher, with minimal quarantining.

“Testing is coming to our schools, and that will help to alleviate a lot of the problems that we are seeing with the large number of quarantines,” Silvestre said. “So we hear you, it’s a problem, and we’re going to address it.”

But many parents say school officials also need to change their protocols and end the practice of quarantining for children not exposed to a confirmed case.

“Why are we taking this restrictive approach?” asked Cynthia Simonson, president of Montgomery’s countywide PTA council, who said no research has been offered to support the current approach. “This is the recipe for educational disruption.”

In Montgomery, the vaccination rate for eligible populations is high, “and yet we have this incredibly restrictive policy that counties with a lesser vaccination rate are not enacting,” Simonson said.

The school system said its decision to quarantine students considered close contacts of a student with coronavirus symptoms was based on guidance from the county’s health department. Although state guidelines do not require those students to quarantine, “this guidance is based in part upon the increased contagiousness of variable COVID-19 strains and the percentage of students who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated,” Montgomery Health Officer Travis Gayles wrote in a Sept. 8 letter to interim schools superintendent Monifa McKnight.

Critics say that needs to change.

Nikki Gillum Posnack, a mother of two, urged that the school system’s “irrational policy” be replaced by CDC guidance in the 160,000-student school system, Maryland’s largest.

“Entire classrooms were quarantined because a single classmate displayed a single cold symptom,” she said in school board testimony Thursday. “These young students did not have positive covid tests. These students were all masked.”