This story was updated at 9:15 p.m. Dec. 30, 2021, to add details from MCPS’ message.

With Montgomery County Public School students returning to classrooms on Monday after a winter holiday break, district officials remain committed to a plan announced earlier this month — considering whether to close individual schools with COVID-19 cases instead of a systemwide shutdown. 

Chris Cram, a spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools, wrote in an email on Thursday that the county’s Department of Health and Human Services will make decisions on individual schools “in consultation with school leadership.”

The parameters for individual schools closing have not changed. School and health officials announced last week that if 5% of the “total school population” of “unrelated” students, staff and faculty at a specific school test positive within a 14-day period, then that school could be closed for 14 days and shift to virtual learning. 

Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard told Bethesda Beat earlier this month that the 5% metric is not an automatic trigger. He added that “unrelated” students, staff and faculty means there is “uncontrolled spread” throughout the school — not contained to a few classrooms, activities, athletics or similar groupings.

In a statement shared Thursday night, MCPS said: “We recognize that COVID-19 positive cases are rising in Montgomery County and across the country. The decision to open all schools was made after careful consideration with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). As we work to ensure the safety of our students, staff, family and community members we are implementing additional mitigation measures in the coming days”

On Wednesday, County Executive Marc Elrich told reporters that county officials would be getting 300,000 rapid coronavirus tests next week, and that priority would go to schools, first responders and county employees who work closely with the public.

Cram wrote in an email that he didn’t know how many of the tests would go to Montgomery County Public Schools, but added that “testing in our schools is done by our vendors and in the month of January we will begin increasing the ability for more testing.”

The MCPS message shared Thursday night says:
• There will be home rapid test kits for all students and staff. Families will be asked to administer tests to children, then report any positive tests.
• All staff members will receive KN-95 masks next week.
• In-school testing for students will continue. “We will be increasing the amount of screening tests for students who do not have symptoms and focus on schools with higher rates of cases,” the district said. There will be rapid testing in school health rooms for students with symptoms and weekly screening tests for those without symptoms.
• Quarantine guidelines announced in November will remain in effect

Overall demand for tests has increased as the coronavirus has spread more rapidly around the county and state.

The state Department of Health, after restoring its jurisdiction-level data after a data breach, showed that from Dec. 4 to 28, there were 11,562 cases in Montgomery County, an average of 481.8 cases per day. On Wednesday, 2,051 cases were reported, the highest single-day total since the start of the pandemic. On Thursday, that daily number increased to 3,051 new cases.

State health department officials said that large amounts of testing statewide is leading to the increase, including in Montgomery County.

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it was reducing its isolation period for those exposed to the coronavirus from 10 to 5 days. Cram said MCPS was still waiting on how that decision would affect state and local health guidelines, and, in turn, school district policy.

“We follow their guidance and when/if they make ​changes that affect schools, we will certainly make our community aware,” Cram wrote.

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

Steve Bohnel

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