Credit: File photo

For weeks, Rory Stephens had one day on her mind: March 1.

Stephens, 15, is autistic and mostly nonverbal, but often said the date to her parents. She knew it would be her first day back in school since March 2020, and she was excited.

Early Monday morning, Rory and her mother, Nora Fitzpatrick, stopped at the Krispy Kreme drive-through, then headed to Winston Churchill High School for the first time.

Rory is a freshman this year and has never attended the school, so along with the uncertainty and anxiousness about the first day of face-to-face classes, Rory will have to learn to navigate a new school.

When they got to Churchill, Rory was a bit shy in meeting her new teacher and paraeducators, but, armed with a doll and Elmo toy — and wearing a white cloth mask dotted with pink crowns and hearts covering her mouth and nose — Rory walked into her classroom and didn’t look back.

“She’s missed this so much, and it’s been really, really hard on her being at home,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think she’s pretty pumped.”

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Rory is one of about 700 MCPS students who returned to school buildings on Monday, many of them in intensive special education programs and who have struggled greatly in accessing online classes.

Other students in some high school career and technical education programs also returned to schools on Monday.

For Rory, it was the first time she really engaged in school in months. In October, she began refusing to participate in Zoom classes. She was tired of screens.

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Rory’s trouble with online classes, and the success her mother has seen at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, where she teaches, made the decision to return to school easy.

Fitzpatrick and her husband have been vaccinated against COVID-19, significantly reducing the odds that they would contract the virus and become seriously ill.

It helps, too, that there won’t be many students in the buildings for the first few weeks, Fitzpatrick said, to give the students who need it most time to adjust.

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“It’ll be nice, because we’ll be the first ones and we can kind of work out the kinks without having other kids around,” Fitzpatrick said. “They’ll be able to get into the rhythm of things and to kind of get the lay of the land of a new school. I’d much rather have it like this than everyone going back at once because I think it would just be pretty traumatic.”

Phased return begins

Kelly Speck, the mother of a 13-year-old son who also returned to school on Monday, said she almost felt guilty that her son was able to return while others weren’t.

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The students who returned on Monday make up less than one half of 1 percent of the entire MCPS student body, and a little more than 1% of the students who will return to buildings this year.

MCPS has developed a multi-phase approach to welcoming about 60,000 students back this school year.

The next phase — which includes more specialized and career programs, along with kindergarten through third grade — begins March 15. Three more phases follow, the last of which is scheduled for April 26, meaning some students will be in buildings for just a short time before the academic year ends in June.

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“This is not ideal, and I think all kids who want to be in school should be able to be in school, but we had to start somewhere,” Speck said. “So, I’m just grateful and hoping for the best.”

Like Rory, Speck’s son, Bennett, has largely rejected virtual classes. He has quadriplegic cerebral palsy and seizure disorder. He is nonverbal, and didn’t interact with his online classes. Often, he would sleep, and his parents, who work full-time, couldn’t constantly divert attention to help him.

But on Monday, Bennett got on his school bus and smiled, knowing he was returning to Stephen Knolls, a school that provides specialized programs for students in special education programs. Bennett’s been attending Stephen Knolls for 10 years.

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Kelly Speck’s’ 13-year-old son, Bennett, boards a bus for his first day back in school buildings in nearly one year.

Leading up to the return to school, Speck said, her family, including her two younger children who attend private school, gave Bennett “lots of pep talks” and encouragement.

They’re not expecting everything to go perfectly, she said.

“I definitely am willing to take the bumps to make progress along the road,” Speck said.

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The first time in Seneca Valley

At Seneca Valley High School, 43 students returned on Monday. They’re the first students to use the new school after it was rebuilt and reopened over the summer.

It is the county’s second regional “hub” for career and technology programs, and houses 14 specialty programs, many of which require hands-on experience.

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As students walked in, they were amazed by the new larger facility, Principal Marc Cohen said, an added bonus to the joy of the day.

“I wish we could have done this months ago, but I’ll take it now,” Cohen said. “Just having kids in the building made my day and made my year. I missed them terribly.

“We go into this job because we’re passionate about helping young people. And, boy, I’ve I missed that — and I knew I missed that intellectually, but I don’t know that I realized how much I missed it emotionally.”

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Cohen, in his 11th year at Seneca Valley, said his favorite part of the morning was getting to see his students in person and feel connected again. But the return to school also signaled a transition toward a return to “normal,” he said, which is refreshing.

“The reality is when schools are closed, the whole world changes,” Cohen said. “And so I think today can serve as a signal that we are hopefully in the process of moving toward whatever our new normal is going to be.”

The path to reopening

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The path to MCPS’ reopening has been long and contentious, with many delays.

After an initial two-week “emergency closure,” MCPS kept its students and teachers out of schools through the end of the last academic year, moving classes online instead.

Originally, MCPS pitched a plan to begin this school year online, but phase students back into buildings by Thanksgiving. But the pandemic worsened, and the county’s health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, advised that the district delay in-person classes.

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The teachers union had also pushed back against the plan, saying it was “wholly inadequate to protect the health and safety of students and staff.”

Months later, MCPS planned to reopen in February, but COVID-19 metrics spiked to their highest level of the pandemic on the same day the school board voted whether to proceed. The board delayed reopening until March 15.

Within weeks, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that school districts that weren’t already offering in-person classes must reopen by March 1 or face possible repercussions. So, MCPS recalibrated and voted to bring back small groups of students on Monday, March 1.

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The announcement made some community members happy, but it was again met with pushback from the teachers union and other community members fearful that congregating in schools is unsafe.

The union, which represents about 14,000 teachers in Montgomery County, took a vote of “no confidence” in the plan. The union said the district is not prepared to provide adequate staffing to support reopening, and that requiring educators to return without being vaccinated is inappropriate.

The unions representing administrators and support staff members also raised concerns with the reopening plan or communication about the plan.

Staff members at Carderock Springs Elementary School welcome a student back to school. (Photo courtesy Donna Redmond Jones)

On Friday, the Montgomery County Education Association’s president-elect and current vice president, Jennifer Martin, said, “There’s a range of feelings about the return.”

Some teachers, she said, are excited about returning to schools because educators agree that online classes aren’t as beneficial as traditional face-to-face classes. On the other hand, she said, “there’s a lot of anxiety about the plan.”

“There are real, real concerns and for good reason,” Martin said, emphasizing that many teachers haven’t been vaccinated.

MCPS said during a school board meeting last week that 5,427 employees had been vaccinated through a partnership with Johns Hopkins University. It was not clear how many had been vaccinated through other means, like state sites or private providers.

On Friday, MCPS sent a survey to staff members, asking them to indicate if they had been vaccinated.

“We have a responsibility as a union to protect our members’ health and safety. That is the fundamental responsibility of the union,” Martin said. “So, we will continue to do everything that we can to make sure our members are heard and that our members are protected.”

At Seneca Valley, Cohen said making sure staff members feel heard, understood and appreciated has been a cornerstone of the school’s reopening plan.

He said he has held numerous town hall-type events for families and community members and shared updated plans and requirements as they’ve happened. He has held hundreds of individual meetings with staff members to answer questions and hear their concerns.

He’s helped make schedule adjustments, schedule vaccine appointments and accommodate individual situations as best as he could, while also balancing the need for staff members to be providing instruction to students in the building.

While not all teachers feel 100% comfortable, he said, he thinks his staff is ready and prepared for the weeks to come.

“For the most part, we’ve been able to find a way for people to come back again feeling like somebody cared about their health and safety,” Cohen said. “If we didn’t do a good job with that, the rest would be more difficult, so we just kind of decided it was one of the most important things.”

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