Montgomery Co. health officials explain decision to send hundreds of students to quarantine

Last week hundreds of students from Montgomery County Public Schools were sent home to quarantine after possible exposure to COVID-19. Now health officials from the county are explaining the policy behind that decision.

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles told reporters during a media briefing Wednesday that the county follows guidance from the Maryland Department of Health and Department of Education.

According to that state guidance, COVID-19 symptoms are any one of the following: fever of 100.4 degrees or higher; sore throat; cough; difficulty breathing; diarrhea or vomiting; the new onset of severe headache, or new loss of taste and smell.

While a single such symptom can send a student and anyone who was exposed to them home, Gayles said the process is more complicated.

School health officers will decide, based on the student’s health history, whether the symptom stems from another sickness. For example, if a student vomits on the bus but has a history with motion sickness, it would not be considered a COVID-19 symptom.

If it’s determined that the symptom likely comes from the coronavirus, they can use a decision aid from the state to decide how to address students who were in close contact with the student with the symptom.

If a person has symptoms but tests negative, all close contacts can return to the classroom. A positive test result would require close contacts to continue quarantining.

“There is one area where we do deviate from the guidance from this date — we have discussed this with the state in prior conversations, and they are aware of of our efforts here,” Gayles said. “It’s this category: if a person has symptoms, with no negative test result for COVID-19.”

In those cases, he said, they’ve gone with a quarantine “until that index case of suspicion receives a test result.”

Gayles said of about 798 students who were sent home last week to quarantine, 199 students continued quarantining because of a positive test result from a close contact. All other students returned to the classroom.

“So we’re looking at approximately 25% of those students who were asked to quarantine during that time period, while we waited for results for that student who had symptoms were in fact confirmed to be close contacts of a positive case, [and] were asked to continue through their quarantine.”

County Executive Marc Elrich said a lot of this frustration might be alleviated with changes in the COVID-19 testing protocols.

The state policy for pool testing is an opt-in program that requires parents to sign their child up for random testing.

“The state does have some rapid tests available, but they require that the school have an opt-in program for testing, which means that a child with symptoms in the health room cannot be tested unless a parent has consented to testing,” Elrich said.

Elrich instead proposed an opt-out program, in which all students would be automatically enrolled in testing unless a parent or guardian expressly opts the student out of testing.

Elrich said he will raise these concerns with the state later this week.

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