Montgomery County leaders address quarantine issues in schools

Why wasn’t rapid testing included beforehand if MCPS began the school year with a more restrictive quarantine policy that goes beyond state and CDC guidance?

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It’s a question FOX 5 tried to dig for answers on after MCPS doubled down on that policy this week, also adding new vaccine requirements for athletes and staff following Thursday’s MCPS Board of Education meeting.

Health experts warned going into the 2021-2022 school year, the Coronavirus Delta Variant was going to be an issue for children.

Around Aug. 13 is when DHHS, Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services, released quarantine guidance MCPS opted to follow. We’ve since learned one particular measure in the quarantine matrix provided, is something Montgomery County’s health department specifically implemented.

MCPS started the school year deciding to use this recommendation, but there was no plan for rapid testing. Only random asymptomatic sampling.

MCPS confirmed in the Thursday School Board Meeting over 1,700 students were sent home to quarantine in the first week of school – much of this connected to the county’s more restrictive quarantine requirement.

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Earlier that week, a letter went to County Executive Marc Elrich from Interim Superintendent Dr. Monifa McKnight, urgently asking for his help with getting rapid tests to avoid excessive quarantining.

Because the local health department answers to the county executive, FOX 5 asked Marc Elrich why the health department did not tell MCPS they needed rapid tests with the more restrictive quarantine policy?  And how is that Sept. 7 letter from the interim Superintendent indicative of MCPS starting the school year with a proper plan in place? 

"In my mind. It didn’t really have the proper plan in place," County Executive Elrich said in part of his response, "I know they had conversations with the health department. But like is said the programs the schools put in place involved no point of contact testing. I didn’t write that. My health department didn’t write that. It was their decision. I know they had talked to Dr. Gayles, if you talk to him he’ll tell you he did not tell them to do only pool testing. I don’t know how that decision had got made. If somebody had asked me, I would’ve said don’t do that."

MORE FROM FOX 5: Montgomery County to begin using COVID-19 rapid tests in schools

The Governor’s spokesperson did confirm rapid testing was made available to students for free earlier. Elrich said he learned of notification over the summer but claims to have not known know about this beforehand because the notification went to MCPS and not his office.

FOX 5 requested an interview with the interim Superintendent on Friday and was told she was not available.

The MCPS spokesperson adamantly affirm it would not have been possible to include rapid testing before the start of the school year because it had not yet been finalized that health department personnel would be available to administer the rapid testing. We’re told that confirmation did not come until a Thursday letter was written back to interim Superintendent Dr. McKnight from the county’s chief health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles. The DHHS Spokesperson confirmed training for rapid testing would begin on Friday.

Elrich told FOX 5 he still not planning to call for an end to this more restrictive policy. He argued over 1,700 students sent home as of last Friday is still a low figure compared to the entire school body of around 170,000 students and staff.

MORE FROM FOX 5: President Biden visits DC middle school to talk COVID-19 vaccines, in-person learning

Elrich and other MCPS officials also pointed to other school districts that are also dealing with large numbers of students in quarantine. Washington D.C.’s Public Schools reported 847 students out of over 52,000 students and teachers in quarantine as of September 7th.

More comparable to the size of Montgomery County, the Fairfax County Public Schools Spokesperson said only 154 students were in quarantine in the first week of school due to having close contact with a confirmed positive case. FCPS has around 205,000 students and staff.

Other officials say another reason the number of students quarantining is so high in the first week of school is because last year, there were fewer students in the school buildings and six feet distance requirements.

"In some circumstances, they are, in our view, over quarantining a full classroom because they’re not able to effectively identify who the real close contacts are. That will get better as we, as they get experience and we work with them to educate them on how to effectively do this: develop seating charges, eliminate activities that are bringing students in less than 3 ft of distance like carpet times," said Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Dr. Earl Stoddard, who led the county’s emergency management team through the pandemic last year.

There was a separate question on the number of rapid tests that MCPS would be available last year. FOX 5 was told 40,000 were requested from the state and that an unknown amount of rapid tests available last year had expired.

Briefing: MCPS Protocols for Vaccination and Quarantine Requirements 

It’s not clear how many of those tests there are from last year. However, Stoddard did confirm the county’s DHHS did have some of those same tests that were expected to expire in May but were given a shelf-life until November.

"Right now, I think as of today, we have 106 kits of 40 tests-per-kit…we believe the state is going to deliver many more by Monday and so we’ll have a full capability. But that 106 reflects what we had--Health and Human Services Department and the schools, collectively--had in place before last week," said Stoddard.

That would mean MCPS and DHHS currently has 4,240 rapid tests available for students before the state’s supply of around 40,000 rapid tests is expected to arrive.