School Zone: DC-area school systems have new COVID-19 protocols

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

What to know about DC-area school systems’ coronavirus protocol

What it is: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its COVID-19 guidance last week, ending a recommendation to quarantine if exposed to someone who tests positive for the coronavirus.

The agency also dropped its test-to-stay recommendation used in some D.C.-area school settings to keep students in class. Masks remain recommended in places where community transmission falls into the high category.

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With the third academic year to be impacted by the pandemic about to begin, health experts say the start of the year should be comparably normal with few jurisdictions requiring masks and asymptomatic testing programs largely ending.

Some say the guidelines emphasize keeping students in school, but critics suggest they may result in outbreaks among students and staff.

What it means: David Dowdy, an epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told WTOP’s Scott Gelman that the last five months have seen COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths stabilize in a way they hadn’t at any other point during the pandemic.

There’s a lot of transmission, he says, but cases are generally getting milder.

Dowdy added that the new CDC guidelines “largely make sense and are in line with what most people were doing.” He warns that school-based outbreaks are possible and schools will have to find ways to “allow kids to get the in-person learning that they deserve.”

Margery Smelkinson, an infectious disease scientist, says we’re in a different place in the pandemic than we were in 2020 or 2021. She says that’s because “practically everyone” has some form of immunity, whether from vaccination or an infection.

Smelkinson says the new guidance reveals “we finally got the message that kids really, really need to be in school. We cannot continue with such a myopic focus on just COVID.” That view is largely possibly because most kids are eligible to be vaccinated, she said.

So what’s new regarding coronavirus precautions in D.C.-area school systems this year?

Regional snapshot: In Prince George’s County, Maryland, students will be required to wear masks indoors, at least for now. The county announced the requirement last week. It’s the only school system in the region starting the year with a mask requirement, which it initially ended in July.

Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest school system, said in guidance released Thursday that it won’t require masks or conduct contact tracing, but that “masking may be temporarily recommended or required in local outbreaks, high-risk situations, or, more broadly, when COVID-19 community transmission is high.”

In D.C., all students 12 and older will be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as part of their back-to-school vaccination series. All students will also be required to take a coronavirus test and submit results before the first day of school.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, the state’s largest school system, officials said in a note to the school community that masks will be required when the community transmission level becomes high. However, the county said parents can opt out of the requirement in accordance with state code.

Prince William County schools said masks won’t be required and that there won’t be contact tracing or social distancing requirements.

Free diagnostic tests will be available in Loudoun County, but students and staff won’t be required to wear masks there either.

In Arlington, Superintendent Francisco Duran said when the community level is high, masks will be required for students and staff, but that families have the choice to opt out. Duran told WTOP that students and staff can also choose to opt in to weekly testing.

Talking points: Dowdy, with Johns Hopkins, said improved ventilation and tests for students exposed are among the keys to keeping schools open and safe.

“We are in a different place now,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t experience waves like we did in the past. My general feeling on this is that we should be hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, recognizing that it’s possible that this winter is going to be much less severe from a COVID-19 perspective, given that levels of immunity have built up.”

Smelkinson added, “We really need to start treating this like the flu — if you are sick, stay home. But we do not need to be asymptomatic testing everybody, and making sure everyone stays at home. We are in a different place than we were in 2020.”

By the numbers
Some data that caught WTOP this week.

On Thursday, Virginia released its annual Standards of Learning assessment scores. Broadly, the state reported a 16-point dip in Math passing scores when compared to the 2018-19 school year. It also reported a five-point drop in Reading, though the state said it adopted a less-rigorous proficiency standard in 2021-22.

In Fairfax County, the state’s largest school system, the percentage of students who passed the Reading, Math and Science exams increased compared to 2021.

“The bottom line is that in-person instruction matters. When we compare the 2021-2022 data with achievement in 2020-2021 — when the majority of our students were learning remotely or on hybrid schedules — we can see the difference our teachers made once they were reunited with their students in their classrooms,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow.

What Scott’s Reading




[NBC Washington]

[Washington Post]

[Bethesda Magazine]

Field Trip 

Here’s a fun thought ahead of the weekend.

Bull run: With the weekend weather looking decent, we’re off to Bull Run for a quick day trip. I’m much more of a white wine in the summer kind of guy.

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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