Going virtual for two weeks is the safest option for all MCPS schools

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Sanjay Fernando

We get it. We wish everything was normal too. But unlike MCPS, we’re not gonna pretend it’s fine when it’s not.

Positive COVID-19 cases have surged rapidly across Montgomery County, following the cold weather and the end of the holiday season. Despite this, the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education is committed to staying open.

As of Wednesday, 100 people at Watkins Mill High School were reported to have tested positive for COVID-19, which equates to 5.55% of the school population, including students and staff.  About 5.67% of MCPS were reported to have COVID-19. MCPS originally set a 5% threshold of reported positive cases for a school to be considered for a two-week virtual transition, which Watkins Mill and the majority of schools in the county have surpassed.

We do what’s necessary to stay safe: we get our booster shots, we keep our masks on, we quarantine if we’ve been in contact with people who’ve tested positive, and we stay home if we’re feeling sick.  We recognize that failure to abide by these safety measures can be the deciding factor between spreading this virus to someone who may not possess the opportunity to become vaccinated or the immune system capable of combating the infection.

And yet our cases keep rising as a result of the holiday season and the inevitable spread from asymptomatic positive people. The best, which in this case equates to the safest, course of action would be for MCPS to close schools, as 60% of MCPS schools have reached the threshold to be considered for virtual transition.  As of Thursday, Watkins Mill gained 22 more student cases from Wednesday. But the county stopped providing data once at-home Antigen Rapid tests were distributed and students were instructed to test that afternoon, so it is probable that there are many more than just 22 new positive cases.

The health and safety of our students and staff should not even just be a priority—it should be an indisputable value.  The transition to virtual school for two weeks is necessary to reduce this rapid spread of infection. Showing up to school and seeing a large number of people absent—either because they’ve tested positive, their parents are (rightfully) scared of sending them to school, or they’re waiting for their test results back is far from ideal, but it is our current reality.

Our lunchtime always consists of students eating without their masks on, which is a way to rapidly spread the virus. Students can stay apart, take precautions, and even keep their masks on all day—but it is still not enough. And students who rely on free and reduced meals from the cafeteria do not have the option to stay away from maskless students.

Forcing students and staff to stay in an environment where COVID-19 can rapidly spread is not what is best for everyone’s health—physical and mental. Excessive worrying about contracting the virus can cause students to be distracted from their work, as many of them do not feel safe at school.

Many businesses and other counties’ public school systems have either set more restrictions in place or closed for two weeks to decrease the risk of COVID-19, but other than the first 11 schools MCPS sent virtual, our county has yet to take any action.

Also, if you have been around someone who’s tested positive, you aren’t informed of this unless you are considered a close contact, which is defined by the county as being unvaccinated and/or the contact was 15 minutes or longer without a mask. The 15 minute threshold that was used for the original strain of the virus does not hold true for Delta, let alone the more transmissible Omicron. Vaccines have been shown to “offer almost no defense” against contracting Omicron, so even our vaccinated students and staff are likely to contract and spread the virus if they’ve been in close contact.

Some students are adamantly against virtual schooling with these past few months being in-person feeling like a step towards “normal” finally.  And after being fully virtual for a year, students have been extremely grateful for in-person school again. But, the vast majority of these students also recognize the risks of in-person learning in our current health climate. MCPS is risking the health and lives of their students and staff with this refusal of virtual school, while only delaying the inevitable need to transition when too many staff members are sick to keep schools open.

The longer we stay in-person, the more students and staff are at risk of exposure to COVID-19, and the more MCPS is permitting this exposure.

Two weeks of being virtual, with a test to return requirement, will help set schools back on track and will provide a welcomed reset to our return to “normal,” allowing staff and students to be in school without putting their health at risk.

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