This story was updated at 1:40 p.m. Dec. 20, 2021, to include what was said at a news briefing with MCPS and county health officials. It was updated again at 7:40 p.m. to include comments from Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard.

School district and county officials said Monday it’s a priority to keep the district open, but individual schools might close as COVID-19 spreads.

Montgomery County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight told reporters during a news briefing Monday that a new protocol will go into effect in January, after the winter break.

If 5% of “unrelated” students, staff and teachers at a school test positive within a 14-day period, MCPS and Department of Health and Human Services officials will determine whether that school should close for 14 days and transition to virtual learning.

The minimum number of people who would need to test positive is 10, McKnight added.

James Bridgers, the county’s acting health officer, told reporters that the metric was based on state Health Department guidance for schools, and that no schools in MCPS had reached that threshold as of early Monday afternoon.

Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said in an interview that the 5% metric is based on the “total school population,” not just not those who have consented to testing. That includes all students, faculty, staff and administrators.

The “unrelated” label for the school population means there is spread throughout various activities and/or parts of the building, he added.

Stoddard said the 5% metric is a recommended target, not an automatic trigger. For instance, if there was an outbreak among a sports team or some classrooms that reached the threshold, officials would have to determine whether that was isolated enough not to endanger the rest of the population, and thus, in-person instruction could continue elsewhere throughout the school.

“Unrelated means you would look at it from the perspective of, we’ve really got uncontrolled spread throughout the school,” Stoddard said. “They’re not all linked to a single incident, there’s multiple introductions, there’s multiple spread events inside the school. … That’s when you’ve got pervasive spread, so that’s really how that will be assessed.” 

McKnight said multiple times Monday that MCPS intends to keep the school system open, even as the coronavirus continues to spread, including the omicron variant.

“There is no plan to close all MCPS schools,” she said.

To avoid reaching the 5% threshold, however, McKnight called on parents and the entire community to take measures to limit the spread of the virus: getting vaccinated, wearing face coverings and consenting for students to be tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis.

Currently, less than half of MCPS families have consented to regular student testing for the coronavirus, she said. That number needs to grow before students return from winter break in January, McKnight said.

“We need a much larger number of families to participate in order to maximize the testing’s effectiveness as a strategy to keep schools safe for our students and staff,” McKnight said. 

“We need the families of all of our students to consent to having testing — both those who have received the vaccine and those who have not — because we are unfortunately seeing breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals,” she added.

Parents can keep track of their school’s status on the 5% metric by keeping in contact with the principal and leadership, which have been sending out coronavirus-related communications since schools reopened.

Jimmy D’Andrea, the chief of staff to McKnight, said school officials are looking at updating the MCPS COVID-19 dashboard more than once a week, to give parents a more current picture of outbreaks and spread in their schools.

But school principals will continue to send out letters to communities on a more regular basis if future outbreaks and spread of the coronavirus occurs, he added.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com