How parents can discern between real numbers and anecdotal stories of COVID in classrooms

Kids are back in the classroom — but across the D.C. region, some classrooms are already seeing empty desks due to students with COVID-19.

But for all the stories you might hear from parents and teachers, the true numbers are harder to track than they used to be.

That’s because the dashboards that used to provide up-to-date information on COVID-19 infections down to the ZIP code don’t do that anymore. To confirm the reports, some parts of the region track the virus through monitoring stations in sewage wastewater.

“Probably the best picture we have these days is that wastewater monitoring that’s going on,” said Dr. Donald Milton, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “It’s happening in D.C. Not so much in the rest of Maryland.”

Montgomery County is the only county in Maryland tracking COVID-19 in wastewater. Virginia still does it too.

“That’s going to go up first,” Milton said about infection rates recorded through wastewater sampling. “It’s going to be later that you hear about cases, that you hear about emergency room visits and hospitalizations and deaths going up.”

By then, the anecdotal stories about COVID-19 spread don’t help as much.

The best way for you and your kids to avoid the virus — and all of the disruptions it can cause — is to stay up to date with vaccinations and, if you are exposed or infected, wear a mask, Milton said.

“I know nobody wants to hear this, but masks work,” Milton said. “We’ve shown here at the University of Maryland that if you put on a 60-cent duckbill N95 mask on people, it reduces by 99% how much virus they put into the air. We get it by breathing contaminated air, so that’s a big deal.”

That’s why he’s also a big proponent of air filtration and ventilation systems, and even recommended a simple do-it-yourself system for your living room.

“The Corsi-Rosenthal, do-it-yourself box fan and filters actually work better than more expensive HEPA filters,” he added. “It’s a very effective way of cleaning the air in your house. It also works when the Canadian smoke’s coming down this way.”

“Filtration is a lot more comfortable than any mask or N95,” Milton later added.

Beyond that, parents can only stock up on tests and hope for the best as the school year continues.

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John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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