Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say the launch of a “test-to-stay” program to keep large numbers of students out of COVID-19 quarantines has hit a snag after new guidance from state health authorities.
The test-to-stay program, operating in a pilot phase, was supposed to launch last week. It would have allowed Montgomery County Public Schools students who are unvaccinated and exposed to the coronavirus at school — particularly in unmasked situations, such as in the lunchroom — to stay out of quarantine as long as they were tested daily.
But Earl Stoddard, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, said local officials received “specific, directed messaging” from the Maryland Department of Health that the test-to-stay program used to avoid quarantines of unmasked students in a lunchroom setting was not “appropriate.”
“We are not moving forward,” Stoddard told members of the county council, sitting as the board of health. “We’re not launching the test-to-stay program. That is not to say we’re not ready to do it — if the state changes its guidelines, we’ll immediately move to do it. But obviously, we’re trying to follow to the degree possible what the state has laid out.”
He said the county was hopeful the state would amend or clarify its guidance — but for now, test-to-stay in the county is on hold.
The focus of the county’s planned test-to-stay program, which has been in the works for weeks, has been retooled recently, as the school system’s quarantine guidelines have shifted since the start of the school year.
Council member Andrew Friedson, who represents District 1 on the council, said county and school officials need to be more transparent with the public about plans falling through.
“It’s been quite confusing,” he said. “The community was told that this was imminent, that it was happening last week.” He added later, “The message that we’re sending to the public has not been clear. It’s really confusing.”
It may not entirely be the fault of the county, “but we are, to a certain extent, moving the goal posts, unfortunately, on parents who had been expecting this for quite a long time,” Friedson said.
Even with the test-to-stay program on hold, Stoddard said he expects some of the large student quarantines to be reduced thanks to updated quarantining protocols announced by the school system, which rolled out this week.
The new guidelines say as long as students are masked at the time of exposure, they don’t have to quarantine if they are a close contact of a positive case, as long as they are signed up for regular weekly COVID-19 screening tests.
While they can continue coming to school every day, those students cannot participate in “high-risk” activities, such as indoor high-contact sports, singing and playing instruments.
Students potentially exposed when they are briefly unmasked eating lunch in the cafeteria, however, will still be required to quarantine for 10 days if they are the close contact of a confirmed positive but may return to the classroom after the seventh day as long as they get a negative PCR test after the fifth day.
The school system started the school year with more stringent quarantining rules that resulted in entire classrooms of students being sent home. Those quarantine rules have gradually been relaxed over the past few months, resulting in a decline in the total number of students in quarantines.
In September, a total of 5,475 students across the school system were quarantined, according to the school system’s COVID-19 dashboard. That fell to fewer than half — 2,190 — in October. So far, in November, there have been 273 students in quarantine.
Strong rollout of kid vaccinations
County council members praised the county’s health department for what they characterized as a strong rollout of vaccinations of children ages 5 to 11.
Federal health officials last week gave the final OK to young kids getting the shots, and Montgomery County began putting shots in arms on Thursday.
Between Thursday and Sunday, the county administered doses to more than 7,800 kids. Overall, that accounts for 42% of the nearly 18,600 total pediatric vaccinations performed in Maryland in the first days of the rollout, according to county and state data.
The county is administering pediatric doses at a number of community sites and directly at schools working with Montgomery County Public Schools.
There are an estimated 100,000 or so children ages 5 to 11 in the county.
A number of council members — including Gabe Albornoz, Will Jawando, Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker — all said their kids got their first shots this weekend.
While there are still limited pediatric doses coming into the county, Council member Sidney Katz said of the county’s rollout, “The system is working.”
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