For the third time since the start of the academic year two months ago, Montgomery County Public Schools leaders on Monday announced changes to its policy for when students must quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure — another effort to prevent students from missing classroom instruction.
Beginning Nov. 8, for the first time, unvaccinated students who are determined to be “close contacts” to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 will not be required to quarantine if they were wearing a face covering at the time of the exposure and have consented to surveillance testing conducted by the school district.
In an interview on Monday afternoon, Montgomery County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said students can opt in to the testing when they are notified that they are a close contact to someone who tested positive.
Previously, close contacts were required to quarantine regardless of whether they were wearing a mask or consented to testing.
“These new procedures reinforce the importance of our ‘Say Yes to the Test’ campaign, which encourages all families to consent for their students to participate in COVID-19 screening testing, which will be in all 209 schools by the end of next week,” Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said.
She added that the testing is critical to identify asymptomatic cases of the virus.
Even though they won’t be excluded from classes anymore, the students who are close contacts but not required to quarantine will be “expected to quarantine outside the school setting” and cannot participate in school-sponsored “high-risk” activities, McKnight said.
High-risk activities include singing, contact sports, playing wind or brass instruments, or other activities that produce heavy breathing.
The other changes announced on Monday were:
• Students who were exposed to someone who tested positive and were not wearing masks at the time of exposure (like at lunch) will be required to quarantine for 10 days. The quarantine could end after seven days, if the students submit a negative COVID-19 test taken on or after the fifth day. Stoddard said this group of students will be the primary targets of the early rollout of MCPS’ “test-to-stay” protocol, which allows students who are exposed to COVID-19 to stay in classes if they are not exhibiting symptoms and routinely test negative.
• Students who were exposed during a high-risk activity — regardless of mask usage — will be required to quarantine for 10 days. The quarantine could end after seven days, if the students submit a negative COVID-19 test taken on or after the fifth day.
• Students who have been infected with the virus in the last 90 days, but are not currently infected, will not need to quarantine. The students will be required to provide proof of a confirmed positive test result, Stoddard said.
The changes were made in response to new guidance released Friday from the Maryland State Department of Education and Maryland Department of Health, McKnight said.
Students who have tested positive for the virus will still have to quarantine for the entire 10 days.
Vaccinated students are not required to quarantine unless they exhibit symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
The school district’s online COVID-19 dashboard shows that, as of Oct. 22, there had been 712 reported cases of the virus among staff and students, and that students had been quarantined 7,368 times.
If a student has been quarantined more than once, each time is counted in the district’s total number, according to district officials.
About 74% of the quarantines happened in September, the first month of school, when MCPS’ policy was to quarantine all students determined to be “close contacts” to anyone exhibiting a symptom that could be related to COVID-19.
After about two weeks, the district backtracked and announced it would no longer require the close contacts of symptomatic individuals to quarantine.
Stoddard said he is hopeful that the new protocols will cut the number of students quarantined each week from around 600 to 100 students.
“I think we’ll end up quarantining a lot less students than a lot of smaller school districts … and without sacrificing students’ safety as a trade-off. That will never be a trade-off,” Stoddard said. “Given the community case rates and vaccination rates and the diagnostic testing MCPS has implemented, I think we can make a safe enough environment that this can be successful.”
In recent weeks, MCPS and the county Department of Health and Human Services have said they plan to roll out a “test-to-stay” protocol.
It would allow students who had been in close contact with someone who tested positive to remain in classes as long as they don’t have symptoms and they test negative for the virus daily, rather than being moved into a precautionary quarantine.
Officials have said the initiative will be rolled out as a pilot program to a small number of schools before it is implemented districtwide.
MCPS and health department officials would not say on Monday how many schools would be included in the pilot or how many students are expected to participate.
McKnight on Monday said MCPS is piloting the program “this week in preparation for expanding it in the coming weeks.”
Stoddard said the goal is to use a “few” classrooms as a trial run this week to ensure that it is implemented efficiently and works as intended.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org