School Zone: The state of COVID-19 in DC-area schools

Welcome to the School Zone, WTOP’s weekly feature about the latest topics and trends in education across the D.C. region.

The state of COVID-19 in DC-area schools

What it is: In the weeks leading up to Winter Break, many D.C.-area schools transitioned to virtual learning due to a rise in coronavirus cases.

At the time, the omicron variant caused disruption, with teachers and students alike getting sick. Now, during the first school spring without masking requirements in place, cases are rising again.

With everyone 5 and older now eligible for booster vaccines, hospitalization and deaths across the region remain low and overall case counts aren’t as high as they were in December and January.

But there is an uptick in the current pace of spread with weeks remaining in the school year. Schools are administering end-of-year standardized tests, as they work through concerns such as unknown causes and treatments for “long COVID” and lower vaccination rates among younger people.


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D.C. parent Becky Reina told us that in her circle, many people who have been able to avoid contracting the virus in the last two years are now getting sick.

What it means: In Montgomery County, Maryland, the state’s largest school district, over 3,000 student and staff cases have been reported in the last 10 days, according to school data. The school’s COVID dashboard doesn’t include historical data, so it’s hard to see how the current surge compares to the omicron wave.

However, there is historical data on student quarantines. So far in May, more than 13,500 students have been quarantined. That’s not far from the more than 15,100 quarantined students during the peak of the omicron surge in January.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, nearly 4,000 students have tested positive for COVID so far in May. That’s higher than the roughly 3,000 students who tested positive in January during the omicron wave.

In D.C., the city school system reports weekly data. The 451 cases reported the week of April 24 were the highest since the week of Jan. 23, the end of the winter surge. Cases increased even more the weeks of May 1 and May 8, too. The city reported 63 cases last week. Data for the current week isn’t yet available.

Big Picture: Health officials said what happens in schools resembles what’s happening in the community. When cases in the community go up, a rise in schools is to be expected.

In Montgomery County, Sherwood Elementary became the first school to ask all students and staff to wear masks indoors in response to a positivity rate around 11%, as Bethesda Beat first reported.

The State Board of Education lifted a statewide school mask mandate in February, meaning the decisions about when to recommend returning to masks is left up to each school system.

Anne Arundel County’s school board this week urged schools with a positivity rate of 5% or higher to resume masking inside as well.

In Fairfax, Dr. Ben Schwartz with the county’s health department tells WTOP over 40 schools have experienced an outbreak, defined by the Virginia Department of Health as three or more cases in classroom. Over 100 classrooms have reported three or more cases, he says.



The county hasn’t changed it’s prevention strategies, but updated some aspects of its response. Now, when schools experience four outbreaks, at-home test kits are distributed, and schools are asked to consider other prevention measures during extracurricular activities for a seven-day period.

Some D.C. parents said that because there’s no school mask requirement, students in class with a positive case are considered close contacts and have to wear masks.

Broadly, some jurisdictions, including D.C., Montgomery County and Fairfax County, are now experiencing “medium” community transmission as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And health experts said that with the availability of at-home tests, county-level data doesn’t paint the complete picture.

Nationally, 1,231 kids 18 years old and younger have died from COVID-19, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Since the start of the pandemic, Maryland has reported six confirmed deaths among kids ages 0-9, and 17 among kids 10-19. In Virginia, 17 kids have died since March 2020.

As of Thursday in Maryland, six pediatric acute beds and two pediatric ICU beds were currently in use for COVID-19.

In the last 13 weeks, Virginia hasn’t reported any COVID deaths among kids 0-9 years old and two among kids 10-19. In that same time period, 56 children ages 0-9 were hospitalized and 35 kids between 10 and 19 were hospitalized.

D.C. doesn’t separate hospitalization by age, but for the week of May 14, the city reported 0.6 new weekly hospital admissions due to COVID per 100,000 people.

Talking Points: Dr. Schwartz, director of the Fairfax County Health Department’s division of epidemiology and population health, said “COVID still has substantial capacity to disrupt people’s lives.”

Arlington parent Miranda Turner credits the county’s test-to-stay program, and said the current surge in cases feels less disruptive in schools. She told WTOP, though, “I do know a lot of people who have COVID right now or who have had it within the past several weeks.”

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz said this week that the county’s five testing kiosks have been averaging 4,000 PCR tests per week, the highest number of tests since December.

In D.C., Reina said teachers and other educators aren’t talking about COVID as much, because “people are exhausted and feel abandoned by all level of decision makers.”

[Read more coronavirus news on WTOP.com, and a special thanks to WTOP web writer Jack Moore for helping sift through COVID data for this week’s edition! Read Jack’s reporting on the state of the pandemic in Montgomery County online.]

Bowie math teacher recognized as teacher of the year

This week, a Bowie middle school math teacher was recognized as the Prince George’s County’s teacher of the year.

We caught up with WTOP’s Valerie Bonk, who was on hand for the surprise announcement.

Prince George’s County Public Schools Teacher of the Year Evelyn Policarpio. (WTOP/Valerie Bonk)

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the Prince George’s County teacher of the year?

A: The Prince George’s County teacher of the year is eighth-grade math teacher Evelyn Policarpio from Benjamin Tasker Middle School. She has 35 years of experience teaching, including 14 in Prince George’s County.

The principle of Benjamin Tasker middle school said “she is the loveliest, most kind, empathetic individual, and so hardworking and so dedicated.”

She has had success bringing students to math competitions both locally and internationally.

Policarpio says that her students inspire her.

Q: How would you describe her reaction to the news?

A: Policarpio told WTOP that she was very surprised by the news when she walked in. She is the first teacher at Benjamin Tasker to win the honor. The school had a finalist last year.

She said, “I did not do anything extra ordinary. I did not expect this. I just did my job.”

Q: In addition to the recognition, did she receive anything else?

A: Kaiser Permanente awarded the school and Policarpio $2,000 for a technology upgrade for her classroom. The school also was given $2,500 from Kaiser Permanente for supplies and other items. Paula Carpio was also given a laptop for her personal use as part of the price.

[Read Valerie’s full story on the teacher of the year on WTOP.com]

By the numbers
Here, I take a look at some data that caught my eye this week.

Howard County executive Calvin Ball and the county’s council this week revealed plans for an additional $5 million to be added to the school system’s budget.

The revised budget, county officials said, will be used to fund:

  • 150 special education positions
  • about 80 positions for prekindergarten
  • 19 jobs for behavioral health and student well-being
  • and 14 jobs to support the opening of the county’s first new high school since 2005.

[Read more about Howard County’s budget on WTOP.com]

What Scott’s Reading

  • State report blasts Virginia’s public schools [InsideNova]
  • Prince William Co. expanding summer school programs [WTOP]
  • Masks recommended again at some Anne Arundel Co. schools [WTOP]
  • Recipe for healthy students: Add garden and cooking class to school [Washington Post]
  • FCPS proposes social media policy, drawing line between professional and personal speech [FFX Now]
  • Community engagement, mental health, staff retention top concerns in school board race [Bethesda Beat]
  • Washington School for Girls Celebrates 25 Years [NBC Washington]
  • Billions in School Covid-Relief Funds Remain Unspent [Wall Street Journal]
  • With Plunging Enrollment, a ‘Seismic Hit’ to Public Schools [NY Times]

Field Trip 

Here’s a fun thought ahead of the weekend.

Sunday weddings: We’re off to New York to attend our second Sunday wedding in as many months. Are Sunday weddings having a moment? I’m most excited for the “Happily Ever After Party,” scheduled to begin when the reception ends.

Keep in touch: Have a school story idea we should know about? Send it to sgelman@wtop.com.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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