DC-area schools reviewing covid policies after CDC eases guidelines

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As schools across the DC region review new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that loosened covid mitigation protocols, Prince George’s County Public Schools tightened its rules this week by reinstating a systemwide mask mandate.

The guidelines ease rules on coronavirus testing and quarantining in schools and come as most area school systems had already relaxed some rules with vaccines available to most students and parents who have pushed for a return to normalcy.

The CDC still recommends indoor masking for schools in communities with high covid-19 levels, but most other districts have eliminated mask requirements.

Prince George’s — Maryland’s second-largest district — dropped its masking requirement last month, making it the last district in the state to do so. Reinstating the mandate, which begins Monday, was a recommendation of the county’s health department. Prince George’s has a high covid-19 level, according to the CDC.

CDC eases school guidance on quarantines, testing, screening

On Thursday, the CDC recommended schools end quarantines for students and staff exposed to covid, allow students in different classrooms to mix and emphasize ventilation and air filtration. It also recommended ending test-to-stay programs, which require students who were contacts of someone who tested positive for the coronavirus to regularly test, and receive negative results, to stay in the classroom.

School leaders in most DC-area school systems, including those in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, Alexandria and DC, said they are in the process of reviewing the guidance when contacted Friday.

Arlington County and Alexandria schools in northern Virginia operated small test-to-stay pilot programs during the last school year. Neither system plans to continue those testing programs. Montgomery County Public Schools — Maryland’s largest with roughly 160,000 students — had a “very limited program that quickly was not necessary,” since there was an in-school random testing program in place and all staff and students had access to rapid tests, said Chris Cram, the district’s spokesman.

Prince George’s County schools plan to provide rapid antigen tests for symptomatic students who have signed parental consent forms when classes begin Aug. 29. It did not have a test-to-stay program in place last school year; instead, it conducted symptomatic and asymptomatic rapid antigen and PCR coronavirus testing.

Parents and teachers: How are you feeling about the new school year? Tell the Post

The new CDC guidance also places an emphasis on air filtration. In the District, many parents and teachers complained last school year about broken HVAC systems and other malfunctioning equipment. The city council unanimously passed legislation requiring DC Public Schools to report which schools have faulty HVAC systems weekly to avoid those problems for the new school year.

Some District parents questioned whether the CDC guidance is feasible.

Bridget Hunnicutt, a mother of rising third- and fifth-graders at Marie Reed Elementary School in Adams Morgan, said teachers and administrators often have “no clue” if ventilation systems are working, since the buildings lack real-time CO2 monitoring. Without it, teachers don’t know whether they should alert students to put on their masks or open windows, she said.

“That’s a real problem, because they’re supposed to be looking out for high-risk situations for kids, but this is something that’s invisible,” said Hunnicutt, a documentarian whose most recent projects have focused on the impacts of covid-19.

In a statement, DC Public Schools said: “We are currently reviewing the CDC’s most recent guidance issued for schools. We will continue to communicate with them [DCPS] community about our health and safety measures.”

KIPP DC, the city’s largest charter network, has traditionally taken a more cautious approach to mitigating the spread of covid, as requested by most of the school system’s parents, spokesman Adam Rupe said. Often, that makes the charter network “a bit slower to make CDC changes,” he said.

The charter network was one of the few school systems in the DC region — along with Prince George’s — to keep a mask mandate in place. This fall, it decided to make masks optional. Also this year, students will have barriers and shields that had separated them removed.

KIPP DC was also one of the few school systems in the area to operate weekly covid-19 surveillance testing of all staff and students for the majority of last school year, although it began reducing the amount of people tested in April and May because of the rollback of coronavirus-testing funding. Parents indicated through a survey ahead of the school year that they wanted to keep a coronavirus-testing program in place, Rupe said. For this school year, which started for many students Tuesday, the charter network decided to begin a test-to-stay program.

“We’ll be keeping a close eye on covid cases and scaling up or back our protocols as we watch covid numbers in DC and our schools,” Rupe said in an email.

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