Jan 3, 2022 - COVID

DMV schools ramp up testing, KN95 masks for Omicron

Magnets on a school locker in the shape of a contact tracing chart.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Schools are battling the Omicron surge with increased testing and KN95 masks — but officials expect more classrooms to go in and out of virtual learning for the third straight year.

Driving the news: D.C. Public Schools will return from winter break on Thursday after a mammoth effort to test each student and staff member for COVID-19.

  • Students will need to test negative for the coronavirus Wednesday and upload their results by 4pm that day in order to return to classrooms. Staff are required to test on Tuesday. The testing requirement and return from winter break were pushed back one day due to Monday's snowstorm.
  • Families can pick up free self-test rapid tests at a DCPS campus tomorrow or at one of the several daily sites that have been distributing them.
  • Montgomery County, Maryland public schools did not instate a similar negative test requirement due to a shortage of tests.
  • In Fairfax County, Virginia, testing sites had hours-long waits ahead of a return to classrooms at nearly 200 schools.

What’s happening: The school year resumes this week with in-person instruction set to be widely disrupted across the region.

  • Skyrocketing COVID cases are sidelining more teachers, bus drivers, and other school staff. And finding substitute teachers was challenging even before the Omicron variant.
  • Montgomery County and D.C. are doubling down on precautions by offering KN95 masks for employees.
  • D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has refused to set a specific coronavirus threshold for taking a school campus virtual-only. Instead, DCPS on weeknights will post online a list of schools that will be closed for in-person instruction the next day. Officials will primarily base their decisions on the availability of personnel.

Coming soon: D.C. students eligible for a vaccine that has full FDA approval will need to receive their shots by March 1.

  • It’s one of the first vaccine mandates for students in the nation.

What they’re saying: “My prediction is that we will close out this school year and still find ourselves scrambling to meet this moment,” said Zachary Parker, president of the D.C. State Board of Education.

  • Despite the challenges, he expects school buildings will stay open, “in part because of the pressure placed by parents and also because we know our students need it.” But he and others have also called on the city to test students daily.

Looking ahead: The District’s new Social Studies standards are expected to be approved around March.

  • The new standards aim to be more “culturally responsive” and “anti-racist,” according to the State Board of Education. The current standards for geography, civics, history, and other topics were last updated in 2006.

And this year D.C. will expand its focus on providing safe commutes for students going to and from school. Bowser announced a $4.3 million investment to hire 215 safe passage personnel after a stabbing in August left a student dead.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect DCPS' new testing requirements that staff should test for the coronavirus on Tuesday, not Wednesday.

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