Montgomery County Public Schools strongly encouraged all students and staff to test for COVID-19 before coming back from their winter break, but proof of a negative test was not required to return. The approach has garnered a mixed community response.
COVID-19 death rates are back to where they were in February 2022 during the Omicron surge, according to the county Department of Health and Human Services’ Sean O’Donnell during a news briefing Wednesday.
“We are definitely in a position where there is increased COVID transmission going on,” he said, adding that rates of illness are starting to tick up in the younger population and in adults over 65 years old.
A risk-based prevention approach
School medical officer Patrician Kapunan told Bethesda Beat that as of Wednesday, MCPS had received reports of 305 positive cases, 191 from students and 114 from staff over the past seven days. In a district serving around 160,000 students, Kapunan said she’s been impressed by how diligently community members have been reporting positive cases.
“At this point in our public health situation,” she said, “we are depending on our community to make risk-based decisions.” She said this requires trust, education, support and respect, adding that the school system provides families with “education about what constitutes risk and supplies to be able to test at home.”
Before the holiday break, MCPS distributed enough test kits to each school for each student and staff member. Each school was given leeway in how they distributed the kits.
Universal screening is no longer recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, but Kapunan said on-site testing is still available on campus if someone appears symptomatic during the school day. If three or more cases appear to be spreading within a classroom, she said the school provides at-home test kits to students and staff who may have been exposed.
Kapunan also said several schools host free vaccine clinics on the weekends, accessible to all students, staff and family.
Conflicting community perspectives
Takoma Park resident Chrissie Juliano runs a public health membership association and has two MCPS students in fourth and eighth grade. She told Bethesda Beat that as someone who works in public health, she knows making health-related decisions is a complicated process for any school district.
“I don’t envy MCPS having to please parents across a district with 160,000 kids,” she said. “These are not easy decisions MCPS has to make — but making them …is really important.”
As a parent, she said her preference would have been to require back-to-school testing, but she understood how much time, money and resources that would require.
“It’s a challenging environment, but if you catch kids going back to school who are COVID-positive or flu-positive, you’re going to cut down on spreading disease in the community. In some ways, it’s a no-brainer,” she said.
Silver Spring resident Kerry Dingle holds a much different view. As the mother of a 4-year-old in private preschool, she said she’s “not very happy” that her child’s school requires back-to-school testing.
“We need to stop making kids feel like disease vectors,” she said. “I’m wondering when we’re going to be done.”
She said she finds the county’s “singular focus on COVID” to be irrational, pointing out that not a single county resident under the age of 18 has died from the virus and adding that she has seen no evidence to support the value of asymptomatic student testing. She said she believes MCPS is “moving in the right direction” by not mandating testing.
Scott Becker is the chief executive officer of the Silver Spring based Association of Public Health Laboratories. He recently wrote an article for USA Today calling for more consistent government funding and proactive measures to combat the spread of COVID-19.
He echoed Juliano’s sentiments and said he understood why testing wasn’t required at this point. In lieu of mandated tests, though, he said schools and particularly principals need to “really get the word out” about prevention strategies.
“I get that we’re trying to move away from this, but we have to look at the disease transmission rates,” he said. “I know that when my kids were in school, I looked at things more carefully when it came from the principal.”
Kapunan said MCPS continues to work closely with the county health department to monitor COVID-19 metrics and make health-related policy decisions. After holiday gatherings and visiting relatives, the county anticipates an expected surge in cases over the coming weeks.
“We’re meeting more frequently to keep a close eye on the situation, because we need to anticipate that things may get a little worse before they get better now that people are coming back from the holiday,” she said.