Montgomery County students will begin the next academic year online, with a phased approach to bring them back to school buildings part-time by the end of November, according to the school district’s draft plan released Saturday.
The 21-page plan, titled, “MCPS Fall 2020: Reimagine, Reopen, Recover,” largely mirrors that of an earlier version released Friday by the teachers union. It details the school district’s vision for the fall semester, but emphasizes throughout that plans could change if there is a local spike in COVID-19 cases. The decision that children would start the school year remotely was not included in the first draft distributed by the union.
School officials on Saturday cautioned that the draft plan is not the final version and it will be adjusted based on changing health conditions and community feedback.
“As you can imagine, this work has been challenging and incredibly complex,” MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith wrote in a message to staff members. “We have discussed and evaluated several possible models for reopening schools and the truth is, there is no one option that can address all of the instructional, operational and logistical challenges that our school system is faced with.”
Unlike many area school districts, MCPS does not plan to postpone the first day of school, scheduled for Aug. 31. Instead, the school district will begin the school year in a virtual-only model to continue planning and provide training to staff members about new COVID-19 protocols.
The plan does not say when the first group of students will re-enter school buildings, but outlines three phases that will be used to gradually bring students back. Each phase will last between two and four weeks, the plan says.
The first group of students to return will be those in special education programs and “transition grades,” meaning they’re moving to a new school level. That includes pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, sixth grade and high school freshmen.
The second phase will be: first grade, second grade, seventh grade and high school sophomores.
The third phase: third grade through fifth grade, eighth grade and high school juniors and seniors.
The plan shows that, to avoid crowding, which can transmit the virus more easily, students will attend classes on a rotating schedule, broken into groups based on grade level and last name.
Elementary and middle school students will be broken into two groups, with one attending on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the second on Thursdays and Fridays. High school students will be broken into three groups.
All students will learn remotely on Wednesdays while school buildings undergo deep cleaning, the plan says. There will be no live instruction on Wednesdays, so students will do their work independently.
While in school buildings, elementary students will attend each class daily, with a rotation for groups of up to 15 children to attend recess.
In the middle school sample schedule, students attend four 85-minute classes each day they are in the school building, operating like a traditional block schedule. On the first of the two days they are in the building, students attend their first four periods. Then, they attend their last four periods the second day.
High school students will receive face-to-face instruction less often.
Students at each high school will be divided into three groups and go to their buildings four times every three weeks.
Neither the plan nor Smith’s message to staff members details how teacher staffing will be managed for in-person and remote classes.
The school experience
When students arrive at school, there will be markings on the ground outside and inside the building, and posters and decals in hallways and classrooms to remind children to remain 6 feet apart. Hand sanitizer stations will be throughout the school, and students and staff members will be asked “health screening questions” upon arrival.
Students and staff members will be required to wear face coverings, which will be provided by the school district if families cannot provide their own. Students will not be allowed to share school supplies and they will be responsible for bringing their school-issued Chromebooks to and from school.
Students will be encouraged to bring their own meals from home, if possible, but meals will still be provided to students who can’t. Lunches will be eaten in classrooms. There will be a “do not share food policy” in place.
In classrooms, which will operate at about half-capacity (usually about 12 students per class), desks will be spaced 6 feet apart, often with taped boxes around them as visual reminders of distancing requirements.
In a kindergarten classroom shown during a tour of a school on Thursday, 6-foot-long desks were marked with an “X” on either end where students could sit.
Families can choose to have their children learn entirely online if they are not comfortable with them attending face-to-face classes. Each day, excluding Wednesdays, there will be a full day of virtual classes offered, with more live instruction than what was offered in the spring, according to MCPS’ plan. There will also be small group instruction, discussion groups and independent learning.
MCPS’ fleet of more than 1,300 buses will operate at about 25% of its total capacity, each limited to 12 passengers, a severe logistical challenge for a school district that last year transported approximately 100,000 of its 166,000 students on buses each day.
Children will sit alone with at least one seat between them and their peers on all sides.
Bus capacity will be prioritized for elementary and middle school students.
MCPS’ plan says families will need to “opt in to request school bus transportation,” but does not detail the process to do so. The plan also does not say if there will be additional staff members on buses to enforce distancing rules.
Surveys and feedback opportunities
Among the questions unanswered in the document detailing the MCPS fall plan include child care concerns, before- and after-school programs, teacher schedules, building cleaning procedures, athletics and extracurriculars, and what might trigger a full shut-down of school buildings. On a “frequently asked questions” page, MCPS says if there is a COVID-19 outbreak at a school it will “contact the Department of Health and Human Services and follow their guidance on closure, testing and self-quarantine.” It does not elaborate.
Addressing a question requesting information about how the school district will enforce mask-wearing among students, MCPS wrote: “All adults and students will be required to wear face coverings in accordance with county guidance.”
“An extensive FAQs about our fall recovery planning will be posted on the MCPS website in the coming weeks,” it says.
The draft fall plan will be presented to the school board on Tuesday. A questionnaire about the plan will be released to staff members July 18-July 26, and there will be a “registration period” for families to indicate whether their children will participate in online-only instruction from July 27-Aug. 7.
The decision will be for the entire first semester, but if a family wishes to change mid-semester, there will be a process to do so, according to the plan.
Community members can submit feedback about the fall plan online.
The results of a survey soliciting community feedback in June about fall classes were not included in the draft plan released Saturday.
On Wednesday, there will be a virtual question and answer session in which residents can ask school district leaders about the fall plan. The session will begin at 6:30 p.m. and will be streamed on the MCPS website.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org