After hundreds of students in Montgomery County, Maryland, were quarantined due to potential coronavirus exposure in the first two weeks of the new school year, officials say they are doing away with the strict quarantine guidance, thanks in part to the rollout of a new rapid COVID-19 testing program.
Under new guidance, announced during a Montgomery County Council briefing Tuesday, public school students who show possible coronavirus symptoms at school will receive a rapid COVID-19 test and only those who test positive and their close contacts will be sent home. Use of the rapid tests requires parental consent, but that can now be given over the phone, officials said.
The county’s previous quarantine guidance required students who exhibited possible coronavirus symptoms — as well as all their close contacts — to quarantine as they awaited standard COVID-19 test results, which led, in some cases, to entire classes being sent home — and also sparked a backlash from some parents as being overly restrictive and disruptive.
Rapid tests are one part of a five-part plan announced by interim Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Monifa McKnight this week after a rocky start to the school year. The plan also includes hiring a special health officer for the school system.
McKnight and a host of other school system officials appeared at the briefing, as well as Dr. Raymond Crowel, the head of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Overall, in the first two weeks of school, 121 MCPS students tested positive for COVID-19 out of roughly 160,000 total students. However, more than 1,700 students were placed in quarantine at some point because of the county’s strict previous guidance, which was stricter than state guidance.
Under the new policy, “in the majority of situations as determined by our school health professionals and the Department of Health, close contacts of symptomatic students will no longer be required to quarantine unless there is a confirmed positive test or a known exposure,” said Heather Dublinske, the school system’s coordinator of student welfare and compliance.
Schools started using the rapid tests Monday, and they’re already helping keep students out of unnecessary quarantines, officials said.
For example, at one school on Monday, six students who began to show possible symptoms were tested on-site. All tested negative — preventing more than 100 other students from quarantining.
Council members applauded the pivot.
“Clearly, 2,000 students being quarantined in a week and entire grades of children being out of schools is a terrible outcome — something that we should do everything in our power to avoid,” said Council Member Andrew Friedson, who represents District 1. “And it does seem that these new protocols that have been described today are a significant step in a better direction.”
However, council lawmakers also had tough questions for school officials and county health officials for what was seen as a flat-footed approach to the start of the school year.
In one exchange, Council President Tom Hucker grilled Crowel and the school officials over why the rapid tests weren’t available on the first day of school, when the State of Maryland released guidance on rapid testing to schools June 30.
“We were in a very different place than we were the second week of August,” McKnight replied, pointing to falling COVID rates in the county earlier in the summer. “Transmission rates for COVID-19 were down in the county. We also were not navigating all the parts of the delta variant. And so, when the guidance on June 30 came out, we were just in a very different place then.”
Hucker responded, “It sounds a little bit like I think to many people’s ears that there was some complacency over the summer and [officials were] not focusing on preparing as early as possible for the school year and for the worst possible scenario.”
Crowel, the head of the county’s health department, said, “I’m not in a space where I can second-guess that issue at this point. We’re in the business now of ‘Let’s try to fix the problem, and try to address the things that are in front of us and move forward.'”
But he assured the council, “We’ve not been sitting on our laurels, kind of lounging through the summer.”
Still, even with the rollout of the new rapid testing program, officials said they are expecting bumps in the road.
“The reality is we’re struggling … in our school health rooms to effectively add in rapid testing this week,” said Earl Stoddard, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer. “And so this week will be bumpy.”
He said schools will likely have to bring in additional contracted staff to help run the school testing process.
There are already many vacancies in the ranks of school nurses.
“We had some nurses who were functionally in tears, because of this responsibility being added to their plates,” Stoddard said of the rapid testing program.
Nurses have to assess students before administering the tests and don the proper protective equipment for each test, he explained.
“This is an additional responsibility that they’re going to find very challenging,” Stoddard said. “We’re going to do it because we recognize that it’s important. But I think it’s an incorrect assumption … that this is a trivial matter to implement.”
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