Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are planning to meet Friday with hundreds of private school administrators and other representatives to discuss the importance of contact tracing as several nonpublic schools prepare to reopen their doors amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The town hall meeting will be the second between county officials, including Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles, and representatives of nonpublic schools, and the first since the county was blocked by the state from ordering a blanket closure of the schools.
“We’re going to talk about and emphasize the steps around contact tracing, what’s involved in an investigation and … the different rules and regulations that put requirements upon schools and businesses to report information to the health department to assist us in that contact tracing investigation process,” Gayles said during an online news briefing Wednesday.
By law, nonpublic schools are required to report known coronavirus cases to the health department’s contact tracing team immediately, officials said.
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Last week, Gayles said the county had only learned two staff members at the Bullis School, a private school in Potomac, had tested positive for COVID-19 through social media rumors. In a statement, the school claimed it contacted the health department two days after the staff members tested positive.
The county’s contact tracing has since identified between 10-15 additional staff members who need to quarantine for two weeks because they may have had contact with the two people who tested positive, Gayles said Wednesday. However, there have been no additional positive test results.
Earlier this month, Gayles issued an order seeking to ban all in-person instruction at nonpublic schools until at least Oct. 1, citing the need to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The move touched off a federal lawsuit from the parents of some private school students, as well two private schools seeking to reopen their classrooms.
Gayles’ order also led to a back-and-forth with the governor’s office and the Maryland Department of Health, which blocked Gayles’ authority to issue a blanket ban on private school reopenings.
Instead, the state said Gayles had to consider private schools’ reopening plans on a case-by-case basis, using guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and still-to-be-issued state guidance.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said the county still has not received any guidance on nonpublic schools.
“No guidance, zero,” Elrich said. “So, weeks after they told us that we should follow their guidance and the CDC, they still don’t provide guidance. Hopefully, this is coming sooner than later.”
Both Elrich and Gayles said the county could issue citations and even order a school closed if it flouts health guidance, such as mask-wearing requirements and social distancing measures.
“A nonpublic school would be considered to be closed if it’s deemed not safe to inhabit,” Gayles said. “And it would be looked at as any other of the same criteria or any other building.”
Dr. Earl Stoddard, the director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Management, said county officials had reached out to 137 schools and expect hundreds of school representatives to attend Friday’s town hall meeting.
Montgomery County Public Schools starts the school year next week with entirely online classes.
Soccer no longer high-risk
The Montgomery County Council approved some changes to the county’s Phase Two reopening plan earlier this week, allowing bowling alleys and museums to reopen.
In addition, the council reclassified the playing of soccer as a medium-risk sport instead of high-risk, which means it can now be played in the county without running afoul of the county’s coronavirus restrictions.
“There is still a national disagreement about where soccer should be placed,” Stoddard said.
However, the county’s change is now in agreement with state guidelines from the Maryland Sports Commission, which had listed soccer as medium-risk.
The county’s coronavirus rules allow the playing of low- and medium-risk sports. However, players and spectators need to wear face coverings, and spectators are limited to the parents of minor children and immediate family members, and must be 50 people or fewer.