D.C. schools face more covid cases as students return to class

Across the D.C.-region, students are witnessing a rise in coronavirus cases just as they head back into the classroom.

Overall, it’s harder to tell exactly how widespread cases are in the classroom. Many school districts aren’t maintaining online, centralized covid-19 data dashboards since a public health emergency order ceased. And fewer people are testing for covid-19, because free test kits aren’t as widely accessible as they used to be.

But in communities and on social media, parents are talking frequently about a surge in cases, and schools are taking action. Several schools in Montgomery County have reintroduced mandatory masking for specific classes with outbreaks. Political and media figures on the right this week attacked Rosemary Hills Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md., which told kindergartners to wear face coverings for several days. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) posted “Never again” on X, formerly known as Twitter, in response to the news. (The school held recess indoors and added extra security after the online backlash.)

This year represents a new chapter for many school districts — the first full school year since President Biden ended the health order in May. Now, schools are primarily monitoring for clusters and influxes in cases, rather than placing an emphasis on tracking and reporting individual ones, like in previous school years.

The rise in cases likely stems from August travel and the gathering of students in schools again, said Xiaoyan Song, chief infection control officer at Children’s National Hospital. The spike, she said, has been consistent with what she’s seen at this time in previous years.

“Labor Day weekend always sort of fetters off to something,” Song said. “So we are seeing a spike increase, but hopefully it’s just that you know, due to all the social factors more than the virus, but we need a few more weeks to see where this trend is heading to.”

So far, school officials say that known cases remain lower compared to surges experienced after winter and spring breaks in the 2022-23 school year.

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In Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools — the state’s largest school district with more than 180,000 students — said there were 14 reported outbreaks, which is defined as three or more cases in a group, from Aug. 18 through Sept. 4. Schools spokeswoman Julie Moult said in an email that the school district reports outbreaks to the county health department.

Alexandria City Public Schools — which has about 16,000 students — has only had two clusters of cases this year, one among staff before classes started, and one small cluster in an elementary school, said Director of School Health Services Robin Wallin.

The Alexandria City school system has rolled in its covid protocols with mitigation for other spreadable diseases, like the flu, this year, Wallin said. The district is monitoring absenteeism levels along with cases tracked by school nurses for any outbreaks. She said that absenteeism levels have not yet spiked.

“Many of our schools have experienced isolated cases, but we’re just trying to treat it like we do other communicable diseases,” Wallin said.

In nearby Arlington County, spokesman Frank Bellavia said that the school district, which has been in class for only five days, is not tracking cases this year, but it will be monitoring for an influx of cases and will provide notice of an outbreak as it would for other communicable diseases.

Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia did not respond to questions.

An educator in Virginia said that teachers around the state were closely watching absenteeism rates. The educator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not cleared by their school district to speak to the media, said that more students and teachers are donning masks again in the classroom. But since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that students stay home for five days if they test positive, the time lost from the classroom is their biggest concern.

“It becomes an issue of equity. What home or out of school supports does that learner have access to? That range is just so broad,” the educator said. “It’s critical. Five days of learning is really hard to recover from, especially when those days are consecutive.”

D.C. Public Schools hasn’t started analyzing case trends since the school year started last week, a spokesperson for the school system said, but thus far, there hasn’t been an uptick in cases.

For the week of Aug. 21, the school system reported one known positive case at Watkins Elementary School. Before the 2022-23 school year ended, the school system reported 71 cases among students and staff throughout May. Between June 1 and June 23, there were 16 confirmed cases in the school district. On the website the school district uses to update families on the spread of the coronavirus, most of the guidance hasn’t been updated from the 2022-23 school year.

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In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools, the state’s largest school district with about 160,000 students, reported Wednesday that nine out of 211 schools had experienced an outbreak since Sept. 1.

The increase in cases was expected, since there’s always “a proliferation of viruses” in the summer, said Patricia Kapunan, medical officer for Montgomery County Public Schools.

“We entered the school year in what I’ve been calling sort of like a modest increase of summer cases,” Kapunan said.

Last school year, the Montgomery school system reached a peak around Sept. 20, when 20 schools were impacted by an outbreak within a single week. There was another “sustained increase” in cases between Thanksgiving and until about mid-February, Kapunan said. During that window, the wave reached a peak in late January when 25 schools were managing an outbreak at the same time.

At Burning Tree and Rosemary Hills elementary schools in Montgomery County, principals sent notes home Tuesday notifying parents of outbreaks and mask mandates. A kindergarten class at Rosemary Hills was required to mask until Monday, after there were four confirmed cases in the classroom, Kapunan said. The decision quickly got pushback from conservative parents and commentators — some of whom didn’t have kids at the school — on social media.

Lindsey Smith, chair of the Montgomery County chapter of Moms for Liberty, said that she received emails and comments on social media from more than 100 parents who were opposed to any masking requirement after the Rosemary Hills letter circulated online. Some of the parents accused the school system of requiring masking as part of a political move, she said: “Parents are just done.”

Public health officials have said that masking is one of the most effective ways to curb the spread of respiratory illnesses. Kapunan said that since the children were kindergartners, none of them were enrolled in school when universal masking was required. “And, you know, one of the things I think we have to consider is the masks are not effective unless kids can safely and efficiently wear them,” she added.

The school system doesn’t require masks in classrooms with students in prekindergarten or who have a disability, since those learners often don’t safely and consistently mask, Kapunan said. The district relies on other mitigation strategies, such as physical distancing.

“We ask them to do the best they can, and we also do things like wash hands and cough in our sleeves,” Kapunan said.

Prince George’s County Public Schools — a Maryland district with about 131,00 students — has had 121 cases since school staff returned on Aug. 21, said school spokeswoman Meghan Gebreselassie, but there have been no operational impacts so far. The school system hasn’t updated its coronavirus reporting dashboard since May 15.

Song said that parents and educators should continue to rely on proven mitigation strategies — like vaccinations, masking and handwashing — to protect against covid and other diseases as the school year continues.

“Stay calm. This is a virus that we know has been going around for three years, and we don’t see any time it’s going to leave,” Song said. “So we just need to be smart and hold on to the strategies have been working great.”

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