Montgomery County students will not return to school buildings until at least 2021, but the school district plans to offer a full slate of daily classes while students learn from home, according to its fall plan released Tuesday evening.
The 43-page plan, released two weeks after MCPS announced it would not reopen schools due to the spread of the coronavirus, includes sample schedules for all grade levels. It shows daily lessons in core subjects, an increased focus on students’ social and emotional well-being, and breaks to use the bathroom and move around.
On July 11, MCPS announced it would begin the academic year fully online with a plan to phase students back into buildings gradually, and a goal to have all students who chose to participate in face-to-face learning in schools part-time by November.
The plan received pushback from educators, concerned about students’ and their own safety. The county’s chief health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, later advised MCPS that he “would not recommend” face-to-face instruction for at least the first quarter, and possibly the first semester. In explaining his decision to reporters, Gayles cited increasing cases in the state and region, and more children becoming sick with COVID-19. As of Tuesday afternoon, there had been 17,910 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Montgomery County.
MCPS — the state’s largest school district with 166,000 students — announced on July 21 that it was reversing course and would not have any in-person learning through at least the first semester, which ends Jan. 29.
“This was not an easy decision and I know it was very disappointing news for the many members of our community who were hoping to have in-person teaching and learning resume in the fall,” Superintendent Jack Smith wrote in a message prefacing the plan on Tuesday. “We also want our students and staff to return to school buildings as quickly as possible, but only when it is safe to do so. We cannot jeopardize the health and well-being of our students, staff and community.”
On Wednesdays, students will work independently for half of the day. During that time, they can receive individualized support from teachers, according to the plan. Staff members will use the time for grading, professional development, planning and engaging with individual students.
Schedules might vary slightly from school-to-school to meet different communities’ needs.
To avoid having students in front of a screen for long stretches, student schedules incorporate frequent breaks, and each class period includes “off screen work” to read or do other projects. In one outline included in the plan for a 75-minute elementary math class, students would be “on screen” for 45 minutes and off for 30 minutes. In a 60-minute high school English class, students would have 45 minutes of screen time and 15 minutes of off-screen work.
A brief synopsis of each grade level’s proposed schedule follows:
• Kindergarten: Kindergarteners in full-day programs will begin the day with social emotional learning and a morning meeting. There will be small group classes in core subjects like English and math, with several short physical activity or bathroom breaks and snacks. Science, social studies and extracurricular activities are incorporated into the schedule each day. Classes generally vary from 30 to 90 minutes. Longer classes have 15-minute breaks in the middle.
• Elementary: Elementary students have longer blocks of classes lasting about an hour each, followed by short breaks, according to the schedule. English and math are scheduled every day, with two days of science and social studies classes each week. Two days per week have time reserved for small group work and one-on-one work with teachers or support professionals.
Middle and high school: Students will be enrolled in core classes and electives. Each day, students will have four one-hour class periods and have time for breaks and individualized support. Each class will be taught twice per week. Students will work independently on Wednesday mornings and have abbreviated “check-ins” with all eight classes in the afternoon. On Wednesdays, the school day will last about an hour longer than usual, concluding at 4:10 p.m. to “allow time for all periods to have check in times,” the MCPS plan says.
• Special education: Students in special education programs will have some live or recorded instruction every day. The days begin with a 45-minute morning meeting focused on social and emotional well-being or small group instruction. Then there will be lessons varying from 45 to 90 minutes, including math, English, real world connections, social studies, science and work on students’ individualized education plans. Speech, occupational and physical therapy will be offered through virtual visits or as part of other classes.
Screening for special education programs will be conducted virtually. MCPS will provide “additional assistive technology” for students with more significant learning disabilities prior to the start of the school year. Training will be provided to parents and staff members about how to use the equipment and support students with more complex needs.
• English speakers of other languages (ESOL): Students who are English language learners will receive language support on a regular basis, through small group instruction or during their general education classes, according to the MCPS plan.
MCPS is “developing a process for recording lessons” for students who cannot participate in live classes, the plan says. Some parents have said this will be invaluable for families with multiple children and limited access to technology, or for children who might need to babysit younger siblings while their parents are at work.
MCPS will use a traditional grading system in the fall, as opposed to the pass/fail scale used in the spring. Students will be considered present for a class in one of three ways:
• If the student attends a live class via Zoom
•If the student completes an “attendance check-in” on the school district’s online learning platform during a live or recorded class
• If the student participates in an online discussion thread during a live or recorded class.
Parents must submit a written note or email or call the school to excuse their children from school. Otherwise, the student will receive an unexcused absence.
Free meals for students will continue to be provided at schools and other distribution centers through the fall.
Sports and extracurricular activities
When MCPS announced it would not reopen school buildings in the fall, Smith announced that fall and winter sports would be canceled as a result.
In the fall plan released on Tuesday, MCPS outlines a model in which sports would be offered virtually. The seasons would include character education lessons, guest speakers, and “sport-specific” or “team-specific” engagement.
Students must provide a parent or guardian permission form to participate. If children participate in conditioning or skills-based activities, they must have a current physical on file.
All MCPS middle and high school students are eligible to participate in sports and extracurricular activities in the fall. The school board in May agreed that “leveling the playing field” and allowing universal eligibility through the first semester of the next school year will support students’ physical, social and emotional health.
If the coronavirus threat eases, in-person programs could resume during the second semester.
“Seasons and calendars will be reimagined to operate as many sports as possible,” MCPS’ plan says.
Career readiness programs
For secondary students enrolled in career and vocational programs, MCPS plans to provide “rigorous and meaningful career-related instruction” and ensure students meet the requirements to complete their programs.
The school district will provide access to online conferences, simulations, project-based learning, capstone projects and more. Students will be provided the “required software and technology.” MCPS is still determining how to accommodate more complex programs like automotive, construction, cosmetology and restaurant management.
MCPS will review its plan, in consultation with local health officials, in November to decide if face-to-face instruction can begin in the second semester. If it’s safe, the school district plans at that time to offer a hybrid model — a mix of in-person and remote learning — meaning students may not return to classes full-time during the 2020-21 academic year.
Like previously proposed, MCPS would gradually phase students back into buildings, and school buses would operate at reduced capacity. Face coverings would be required in schools and social distancing would be enforced, along with more frequent cleaning of all facilities.
If the hybrid teaching model is allowed to begin in February, it will have been 11 months since students were last in school buildings.
Community members can provide feedback about the fall plan on the MCPS website.
The Montgomery County Board of Education will review the plan at its meeting on Thursday. The meeting will be held virtually and begins at 3:30 p.m.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com