D.C.-area schools face rising covid cases, aren’t restoring strict rules

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
Capitol Heights Elementary School fourth grader Averie Timberlake raises her hand in a class that is also being attended by virtual students in October 2021.

School districts in the Washington region are contending with the national surge in coronavirus cases that has resulted in the highest numbers since the winter omicron surge and left more students are at home quarantining.

But this latest spike in cases arrives after most districts have already lifted masking requirements and shortened quarantine protocols – and, following federal health guidelines, the region’s school leaders say they are not reconsidering a complete overhaul of covid policies in the final stretch of the academic year. Prince George’s County is the only school district – and one of the few big districts in the country – that still has a mask mandate.

According to publicly available data, the latest spike is not as severe as the increase in cases caused by the omicron variant, which sent many school districts temporarily back to virtual learning, though public heath officials across the country warn that cases are likely undercounted due to the widespread availability of at-home rapid tests. Still, it reflects the difficult reality for schools more than two years into the pandemic: Covid is still here, even as they seek a return to normalcy.

“I don’t think [covid] is going away; I think we have to continually manage it,” said Brenda Wolff, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education, which oversees the Maryland county’s 159,000-student school system.

The Montgomery County Board of Education announced this month that it would require students in classrooms that have three or more positive coronavirus cases to wear masks, though the board is not considering a systemwide shift in masking.

In D.C., like many other jurisdictions, the mid-May case numbers brought the city’s covid community level – a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention label that reflects the virus’s current impact on the health care system – from “low” to “medium” for the first time in a month.

Children’s National Hospital in the District said it is experiencing a slight uptick in covid hospitalizations, with nine children in the hospital with covid on Thursday. During the omicron surge, Children’s National peaked with 67 children in the hospital with covid at one time, according to a hospital spokeswoman.

As of Thursday, 4,698 D.C. Public Schools students had been identified as a close contact of someone who tested positive within the last 10 days. Students who are vaccinated, or contracted the virus in the last 90 days, are not required to quarantine, but are supposed to wear a mask for 10 days following the exposure. Unvaccinated students must quarantine, though they can return to school after five days if they receive a negative coronavirus test.

The city does not track which students are vaccinated and which are not but, according to city data, Black and Hispanic residents living in low-income neighborhoods are least likely to be vaccinated, suggesting that students who live in those areas could be spending more time at home quarantined.

With more students and staff quarantined, at least one D.C. public school informed families this past week that its high-stakes standardized exam would be consolidated into one week instead of two so the school can use the second week to administer a makeup test for students who are out quarantined. Another elementary principal emailed parents reminding families of quarantine procedures and to get vaccinated.

“I’m certain that every grade level and most homerooms have experienced a case in the last two weeks,” the principal wrote.

In Virginia, the state’s health department no longer requires schools to contact trace individual virus cases. Fairfax County Public Schools, a district of about 180,000 students, has stopped collecting and monitoring data on the number of students and staffers forced to quarantine because of exposure, according to spokeswoman Julie Moult.

But Fairfax has experienced a steep rise in reported cases over the past four weeks, according to its coronavirus infection database, posted online. The school saw about 750 cases in March, more than 2,000 in April and, so far in May, above 4,000, per the database. More than 800 cases were reported on May 16 alone.

When a school campus experiences four outbreaks – each outbreak comprising three or more cases – the school will send “affected” children home with coronavirus test kits, Moult said. If a school experiences more than four outbreaks and positive cases comprise at least between 5 and 10 percent of the student body, officials will hold a “school wide testing event,” Moult said.

Kimberly Adams, a Fairfax parent and the head of the teachers’ group the Fairfax Education Association, said her son’s classroom saw an outbreak about two weeks ago – and ultimately more than 50 positive cases emerged at his school. She said the school sent at-home tests to every family with a child in the classrooms that had outbreaks, asking – but not requiring – that parents test their children over the weekend, report the results back and keep their children home from school if the results were positive. She called that “a good step.”

The school also postponed or canceled some after-school activities, including a concert, which upset some parents, Adams said. She added that most people she knows seem ready to move on from the pandemic.

“Me personally, we actually pulled our kid out for three days the week there were outbreaks happening in his classroom,” she said. “I think we’re still going to see the virus continue to do what it’s gonna do, that’s its job, to spread … everyone seems to be back to normal and no one seems to care.”

In Arlington Public Schools, spokesman Frank Bellavia said the district of 27,000 has seen rising cases since mid-March. The system’s coronavirus database shows there have been more than 460 staff and student cases in the past week.

“We are asking families and staff to continue to be vigilant, wear a mask, participate in testing if exposed or symptomatic, and get vaccinated,” Bellavia said. “Even if symptoms may be due to allergies or other causes, we ask that students get tested to rule out COVID-19 before coming to school.”

And in Alexandria City Public Schools, which enrolls 16,000, cases are also rising slightly. The division saw 63 cases in March, but 104 in April and 201 so far in May, according to Chief of Student Services and Equity Julie Crawford. Crawford said the school is not planning to alter its mitigation measures, which include temperature screenings upon entry to school and a “self-check” health questionnaire that students, families and staff are asked to complete each day.

In Maryland, Anne Arundel County Public Schools – the first Maryland school system to remove a mask requirement early this year – has now decided to recommend that schools with a covid positivity rate of 5 percent or higher declare a schoolwide outbreak and ask, but not require, students and staff to wear a mask for 10 days.

Hannah Donart, a mother of two elementary students in Montgomery County said she has received three letters alerting her of a covid exposure in the past week – the most she has ever received in a short period.

She said she wished the school system had kept its mask mandate in place, instead of requiring them only when cases are already detected.

“They’re not using one of the most basic tools that we have in our arsenal to combat transmission,” Donart said.

Schools in Prince George’s have also experienced a steady rise in cases this month. The pandemic hit the county harder than any other in Maryland, causing the school system to take a more stringent masking approach, spokeswoman Meghan Gebreselassie said. The school system is not expected to lift its masking requirement until the entire county reaches an 80 percent full vaccination rate. The vaccination rate in the county is just over 75 percent, according to state health department data.

“We could not ignore the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on our Black and Brown students and their families,” Gebreselassie said.

Photo for The Washington Post by Craig Hudson
Students during a walkout in protest of the Montgomery County Public Schools’ covid-19 safety response at Gaithersburg High School in Gaithersburg, Md., on Jan. 21, 2022.