William Farquhar Middle School Principal Joel Beidleman demonstrates in February how in-person classes will look at the school in Olney. MCPS provided members of the press a tour of the school in advance of the first small group of students returning to buildings on March 1. Credit: File photos by Caitlynn Peetz

On March 1, the first group of Montgomery County Public Schools students returned to schools for the first time in nearly a year.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools across the state for what was originally expected to be a two-week “emergency” closure to slow the virus’ spread.

For most districts across the state, the closures extended through the end of the academic year. Some, including MCPS, remained closed into the fall and have not reopened since.

But amid pressure from the state and improving COVID-19 metrics, the Montgomery County Board of Education in February voted to begin phasing students back into buildings, with the first group starting March 1.

The next group of students will return to buildings March 15. Then, there will be multiple subsequent phases.

Below are answers to some common questions about the return to schools.

Is MCPS forcing all students to return to buildings?
No. Families who indicated through the MCPS survey this winter that their children will remain in the virtual-only format will continue with virtual classes. MCPS is not requiring students to return to buildings.

Can families change their survey answers?
MCPS will not send a new preference survey to families. But those who want to change their choice — switch from all virtual to hybrid or from hybrid to all virtual — should contact their child’s school directly to make the request. Schools will accommodate all changes from hybrid to all virtual, but children wanting to switch to receive some in-person instruction may be wait-listed until space and staffing are available.

What does the phased return to schools look like?
The first group of students returned to buildings on March 1. About 730 students in some special education and career and technical education programs returned to in-person classes.

Other phases and the deadlines for them to start:
• March 15: Career and special education programs not included in the March 1 reopening, alternative programs and kindergarten through third grade

• April 6: The remaining career programs, pre-kindergarten, fourth through sixth grade, and high school seniors

• April 19: Eighth grade, high school freshmen and high school juniors

• April 26: Seventh grade and high school sophomores

The phases could begin earlier, depending on space and how the earlier phases go, according to MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala.

School board members recently suggested that the phases could be expedited. More information is expected at a meeting on March 23.

What precautions are in place to promote social distancing and other safety measures in schools?

MCPS took members of the media on a tour of William H. Farquhar Middle School in Olney to show how in-person classes will look.

There were several entrances for students and staff members to avoid crowding when entering and exiting the building. When entering, extra face coverings, hand sanitizer and other protective equipment were available. There was signage on walls, doors, and floors encouraging social distancing, indicating one-way hallways and staircases, and marking areas that are off limits.

Tape and stickers mark the path to a one-way staircase and encourage social distancing.

Students will not use lockers to avoid gathering, and water fountains will not be operational in schools. Schools that do not have water-bottle-filling stations will have a “centrally located bottled water dispenser.”

Classes will be smaller, and students will arrive and leave in several waves. Lunch will be eaten in various areas throughout the building. Some common areas, like cafeterias and media centers, have been repurposed to create more space for classes.

What kind of health and symptom screening will there be before students and staff members enter buildings each day?
Students and staff members will be required to fill out an online “health attestation form” once per week, asking if they are experiencing COVID-like symptoms. MCPS Associate Superintendent of Operations Essie McGuire said the screenings will ask about possible symptoms (a fever, cough, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, new loss of taste or smell) or close contacts with others who have tested positive. It is intended to be a weekly “reminder” to families to check for symptoms all the time.

MCPS has purchased thermometers for families, so temperatures can be taken prior to arriving at school. Anyone with symptoms or a fever will be required to stay home.

If families don’t complete the screening, or lie about symptoms, MCPS will investigate, officials said. If a school determines a student is symptomatic or ill and attempts to attend in-person classes, staff members will be notified that the student cannot attend, Turner said.

How will MCPS handle positive COVID-19 cases among students and/or staff members in schools?
During the school tour, McGuire said families will be notified of a positive case in their child’s class or school.

During a school board meeting the same afternoon, McGuire said health staff members are “finalizing protocols for addressing illness and COVID situations” and that a draft has been shared with principals, but documents for the public are not ready. She said it would be a case-by-case decision on what would prompt a classroom or school to have to transition back to virtual-only classes due to positive cases.

For the entire district to retreat from in-person learning, “we’d be looking at a very dramatic shift” in countywide COVID-19 metrics, she said.

A station with extra face coverings, sanitizer and other safety equipment is set-up at the entrance of the school.

If a positive case is identified, the county health department will do contact tracing to determine close contacts (generally, people who were within 6 feet of an infected individual for 15 minutes or more), according to a graphic presented by MCPS on Tuesday. Those close contacts will be notified and told to quarantine or be tested for the virus. Classrooms and other common areas where the person was will be deep cleaned and any classes to be held in that room will be relocated temporarily. Any students or staff asked to quarantine will switch to virtual classes.

Will there be a school nurse at every facility?
Yes. MCPS officials said there will be a school nurse at each school as it reopens. Along with caring for ill students, nurses will help the county health department with contact tracing.

The school board recently approved a $3.5 million contract for additional health services.

The additional staff will be used to help cover “triage rooms” for sick students and staff members, substitutes when nurses are unavailable and “other assistance as needed,” McGuire said.

Will there be routine testing of MCPS staff members and students?
The Montgomery County Board of Education this month approved a $5 million contract, in partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools, to provide weekly tests to some students and staff members.

The contract was awarded to Ginkgo Bioworks of Boston, Mass.

Students and staff members will be divided into groups. Each week, a group will be tested for COVID-19.

Students and staff members in the week’s chosen group will conduct their own nasal-swab tests, which will be sent to a lab for analysis. If a positive is found, the class will be quarantined until the infected person is identified and contact tracing is conducted, according to MCPS Chief of Engagement, Innovation and Operations Derek Turner.

Families who don’t want to have their child participate will need to opt out of the program.

The tests are intended to detect asymptomatic illness to prevent spread, Turner said.

Student lockers are taped off. Students won’t use lockers when they return to schools to avoid crowding.

Will there be extended paid sick leave for teachers who contract or are exposed to COVID-19?
Yes. A memorandum of understanding between MCPS and the teachers union says educators who must quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 test or possible exposure will be reassigned to a remote position. If remote work is not possible, the teacher will be placed on “unusual and imperative” paid sick leave.

How will MCPS handle transportation on school buses?
Nearly half of the students who plan to return to schools will take the school bus, according to MCPS Director of Transportation Todd Watkins.

School buses will operate at about half capacity, with an average of 22 students per bus. One student will be allowed to sit in each seat.

Each bus will make multiple routes each morning and afternoon, and will be cleaned between routes. Each bus will undergo a deep cleaning with high-powered cleaners each evening, Watkins said.

Many students who take the bus to school will likely arrive well before their first class starts at 9 a.m.

High school students are expected to begin arriving at 7:45 a.m. and middle school students at 8:15 a.m.

Staff members will provide academic support, or will monitor students until classes begin.

What about lunch? Recess?
Each school’s procedures for lunch will vary, MCPS officials said, but there will be several areas for eating meals.

At Farquhar Middle School, Principal Joel Beidleman showed a reconfigured cafeteria that, instead of large rectangular tables, had desks spaced six feet apart throughout the room. The space could be used for instruction throughout the day, or other situations when extra space is needed. Students can eat lunch in the cafeteria, but many will also eat in classrooms, outdoors and in other large areas, McGuire added.

Cafeteria tables were replaced with student desks, stationed several feet apart.

Elementary students will have recess. The district will avoid mixing grades and classes on the playground, and will encourage games and activities that don’t require close proximity.

Will high school students be allowed to go off campus for lunch?
No.

Will the distribution of free meals continue for children who don’t return to schools?
Yes, meal distribution will continue, but at fewer sites. The sites that will continue have not been disclosed. During a recent school board meeting, McGuire said there will be school “cluster hub sites.”

There will be meal distribution on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Extra meals will be provided on Tuesday and Friday.

Will portable classrooms be used?
Yes, some portable classrooms will be used. The temporary classrooms, in separate structures outside the regular school building, provide more space for students, MCPS leaders said. Most portables have adequate air filtration systems, according to McGuire, and those that do not will not be used.

What instructional models will schools use? What technology will be available for teachers?
Instructional models will vary from school to school, depending on available staff members and how many students return to buildings.

Farquhar Principal Joel Beidleman uses a promethean board to complete a lesson that both in-person and virtual students can see. Virtual students are projected onto the screen so they can interact with students in the classroom.

Some schools and classes will offer more traditional live instruction, in which a teacher leads an in-person class.

Others will task educators with teaching both in-person and virtual classes simultaneously.

MCPS Chief Technology Officer Pete Cevenini said during a school board meeting last month that cameras will be provided to all teachers in this model by the time they return to schools. The cameras will have wide angles, he said, and can be repositioned as teachers move throughout the room.

The teachers will get microphones that Cevenini said pick up audio clearly from all areas of a classroom.

During the tour of Farquhar Middle School, staff members demonstrated how some cameras and Promethean boards can be used to project the virtual classroom onto a wall, so in-person students can see and interact with them during lessons.

The cameras can be positioned to show close-ups of materials or science projects, for example.

In some schools, students will take classes via Zoom.

The district is hiring “classroom monitors” to help watch classes, recesses and lunches; assist with technology; and encourage health protocols throughout the day.

As of Tuesday, 57 monitors had been hired. Another 202 had been tentatively hired, pending the completion of a background check. MCPS staff members said they are conducting additional interviews for the monitor positions every day.

How many students will be in each classroom?
On average, there will be about 11 students in each classroom, though it will fluctuate depending on program and classroom size.

How will the district enforce mask wearing and social distancing?
In each school, there is signage and markers on walls, doors and floors reminding students to maintain 6 feet of distance from their peers. There are several hand-sanitizer stations.

Face coverings are required, except in situations in which a child’s medical condition prevents them from wearing a mask.

MCPS staff members have said that the first approach will be to teach the child why mask wearing is important and remind them if they forget.

There will be disciplinary actions if students refuse to comply with face-covering requirements, Turner said, but he did not elaborate.

School board member Shebra Evans suggested that the district consider requiring students return to virtual-only classes if they refuse to wear face coverings at school.

Farquhar Principal Joel Beidleman shows how a science teacher might demonstrate an experiment for in-person and virtual students simultaneously.

What if somebody experiences symptoms at school?
If a student becomes ill at school and exhibits COVID-19 symptoms, they will be cared for by health staff members.

There will be a room in each school, separate from the health room or nurse’s office, to isolate the child from others until they can go home and undergo testing.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com