Officials with Montgomery County Public Schools say they have seen a dramatic drop in the number of COVID-19 cases, following a surge last month that disrupted Maryland’s largest school system and shifted more than two dozen schools to virtual learning.
Speaking Tuesday before the Montgomery County Council — sitting as the Board of Health — MCPS Chief of Staff James D’Andrea said COVID-19 case rates have sharply dropped, an unprecedented number of substitute teacher requests is falling, and the number of unserved bus routes due to driver shortages is going down.
“Thankfully, there’s been a very significant decrease in cases since classes resumed right after winter break,” D’Andrea said.
On the day classes resumed Jan. 5, the school system reported a high of 2,833 COVID-19 cases on a single day, according to data D’Andrea presented to the council. In the first 10 days after returning to classes, the school system reported a total of over 14,000 COVID-19 cases.
In the most recent 10 days ending Jan. 31, the school system reported just under 1,200 cases, including a single-day low of 37 cases on Jan. 29.
The school system has more than 160,000 students and employs more than 24,000 teachers and staff across 209 schools.
Regarding the severe shortage of substitute teachers, D’Andrea said the number of requests for substitute teachers has fallen — and the school system is able to accommodate more of them, meaning teachers are less frequently having to cover other classes.
“At the beginning of January, this was a very significant challenge, because we experienced a higher percentage of unfilled substitute teacher requests than we all can ever remember in the past,” he said.
On the day classes resumed in January, there were 1,615 total requests for substitute teachers across the school system — and the school system was only able to fill 390 of them.
On Jan. 31, there were half as many substitute requests — 845 — and the school system was able to cover more than half of them, he said.
D’Andrea pointed to an agreement the school system recently inked with the Montgomery County Education Association to increase pay for subs. “That is definitely helping,” he told council members.
Finally, D’Andrea said, bus transportation woes are also easing.
During the height of the omicron surge last month, more than 80 bus routes went unserved because of driver shortages, and county officials ended up pleading for help from the Maryland National Guard to ease bus driver shortages.
For the past week, there have been no unserved bus routes in the county, D’Andrea said. “That means that all bus routes have been running in the morning and the afternoon as the COVID-19 case rates have gone down,” he said.
Last week, the school system announced four additional schools would temporarily transition to virtual learning through Feb. 13 based on COVID-19 case rates and staff shortages. Before that, a total of 27 schools pivoted to virtual learning because of spiking virus cases.
Going forward, the school system will review data each week, and any announcements about a shift to virtual will be made on Friday, with virtual learning to begin the following Monday, he said.
Speaking to lessons learned during the winter surge, D’Andrea said the school system plans to provide rapid COVID-19 test kits to students before they return from spring break in April.
D’Andrea said MCPS wasn’t able to do that for winter break due to difficulty acquiring the test kits amid high demand.
The county Health Department has since supplied 340,000 rapid test kits to the school system, according to data presented to the council Tuesday.
“We’ve already made plans to make sure we have tests available for spring break so that we do have that option available,” he said.
Cases down across county
The good news on ebbing COVID-19 case rates in the school system mirrors trends seen across the county, where cases and hospitalizations are falling steeply from record highs last month.
“Today is a day where we’re bringing mostly good news to the council,” said Sean O’Donnell, the public health emergency preparedness manager for Montgomery County Health and Human Services.
COVID-19 case rates, while still high, have fallen significantly from a peak last month. The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations is down to about 280 — from a peak of 550 last month. Overall, 18.3% of hospital beds in the county are occupied by COVID-19 patients, which is still considered high, but has fallen sharply.
“The news here is really good,” council member Andrew Friedson said. “I just want to point out it was a really awful January for everybody. And whether it’s the schools, or the community, things are looking better.”
Responding to the data presented Tuesday, council member Hans Riemer said, “I think we’re going to have a great spring. I think we’re going to be able to and we need to be able to allow people to live their lives. And you know especially kids — kids need to have a spring with sports and extracurriculars and theater and play dates.”
Under a board of health regulation approved by council members last week, the mask mandate for indoor public places remains in effect through Feb. 21.
Earl Stoddard, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, said the county must be prepared to respond to future surges or to another variant that rears its head.
“As we get into this endemic stage of the virus, we need to still remember that we have to have a system that is ready to respond to future surges.
“I’m not saying we’ll need to mask again next winter,” Stoddard said. Rather, county officials need to stay attuned to hospital capacity and the impact on health systems, and be prepared to dial measures back up if necessary.
In other words: “Don’t burn your mask supply on May 1 because there hasn’t been a wave in the last month or two,” Stoddard said.
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