Dear MCPS Community:
The September 3 communication regarding updated guidance about quarantining students in close contact with an individual who displays COVID-19 symptoms has raised concerns and further questions. I would like to provide additional information about this guidance, as well as share some new information about tools that will help us minimize the number of students who need to quarantine. Attached is a letter from Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County Health Officer. Following are some of the major points regarding our prevention strategies.
The Maryland Department of Health and the Maryland State Department of Education, using recommendations from the CDC, provide guidance to assist local school districts but advise schools to “work with local health departments to determine the layered prevention strategies needed in their area to protect students/children, teachers, and staff.” The deference to local health departments was outlined in the August 13, 2021, guidance issued by the state agencies where they “strongly recommend” that schools work with their local health departments because decisions about prevention strategies “should be informed by monitoring levels of community transmission, COVID-19 vaccine coverage, use of screening testing to detect cases in K-12 schools, ages of children served, and the associated factors that may impact the risk of transmission and feasibility of different prevention strategies.”
In developing its COVID-19 safety and health protocols, MCPS has relied on recommendations provided by federal and state agencies, but ultimately follows guidance provided by DHHS, the agency assessing every local COVID-19 case in our community.
While DHHS follows state guidelines, it takes a different position with respect to one area referenced in the state’s August 13 guidance. Specifically, Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County Chief Health Officer, states that “our guidance differs with the state guidance for one category—persons with symptoms, no negative test result, no alternative diagnosis to explain symptoms, and no known COVID-contact history.”
MCPS’ decision to quarantine close contacts of a student with COVID-19 symptoms was based on guidance from our local health department. While the state guidance does not require these students to quarantine until a positive test result is obtained, DHHS advises a different strategy for that category of students. As Dr. Gayles states, “locally, we have asked students who have been identified as close contacts to those cases to quarantine pending a negative test result from the index case; the local decision was made based upon concerns related to the increased contagiousness of variable COVID strains, and the percentage of students who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.”
MCPS will be receiving rapid tests for every school from both the state and county by the end of next week. The use of these tests, in conjunction with the other safety measures we have in place, will hopefully help us keep more students in school. We will be receiving further guidance from DHHS on the implementation of this rapid testing program and will provide information to you as quickly as possible.
We have all experienced the dynamic nature of this pandemic and the need to pivot based on what health officials learn and the trends that they observe in schools and communities. DHHS has committed to continue to “monitor epidemiologic and surveillance data to tweak the approach” to quarantining students. In addition, Dr. Gayles shared that DHHS has implemented a review of its staff’s administration of the guidance around quarantines to ensure it is universally applied and that they will continue working closely with MCPS staff to better identify close contacts that meet the CDC guidelines.
MCPS is committed to finding innovative solutions to create distance among students at schools and we commend our principals for their work in doing this. We are encouraging teachers to continue using creative strategies in the classroom that help students physically distance and to continue to be mindful of groups of students working together. Our efforts can minimize the number of students who need to quarantine.
Our top priority is to keep schools open and ensure that students and staff are safe. All the prevention strategies we have put in place will help us to minimize disruption to learning. Vaccinations, masks, handwashing, maximizing the use of outdoor spaces, and staying home when sick can help reduce transmission of COVID-19.
We appreciate our partnership with DHHS and other county agencies in developing prevention strategies that meet the needs of our community. Thank you for your patience, understanding, and flexibility through these difficult times. By continuing to work together, we will keep our doors open with our students learning in-school five days a week.
Monifa B. McKnight, Ed.D.
Interim Superintendent of Schools
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