As the number of students in quarantine increases, surpassing the capacity for virtual classrooms, Montgomery County Public Schools leaders said Thursday they will modify how lessons are provided to those students.

Starting Tuesday, instead of attending live classes, quarantined elementary school students can access recorded math and literacy lessons on their own time. There will not be graded assignments or “direct interactions with teachers” during the lessons, district leaders said.

The model will be used for all elementary schools. MCPS Chief of Teaching Learning and Schools Sarah Sirgo said more teachers than needed have volunteered to record the lessons.

High school students will continue to either watch their classes via live stream or have a class time or check-ins via Zoom with their teachers during their noninstructional periods. The teachers will decide each day what is best for their students based on the content being taught and other “individual circumstances.”

The instruction will be available to some students absent for other reasons than quarantine — like not having access to transportation as the district struggles with a bus driver shortage or if their families do not feel safe attending in-person classes as cases rise. The option will be available at least through Jan. 31.

The decision about whether these students can access the quarantine instruction will be made on a case-by-case basis, district leaders said. The goal is to help them get to and be comfortable in classrooms.

Previously, those students could not access the quarantine instruction.

The new models were met with some pushback from school board members — including Rebecca Smondrowski and student member Hana O’Looney — who worry that they do not provide a “full educational experience.”

MCPS administrators said, however, that the models are a short-term bridge intended to keep students “engaged.” It is not considered a long-term virtual learning option, like the virtual academy.

“None of these experiences replace coming to school in person,” Sirgo said. “… It’s a hold to keep you on pace when not in school. It’s not something we want someone to be doing for an unlimited time.”

The new elementary school model will alleviate a problem that surfaced on Thursday in which more students needed to access the live classes than the district’s Zoom platform could accommodate at one time.

Sirgo said about 450 children signed up for each level by Wednesday night, leading to each course being split into two sections. The limit for teachers’ Zoom accounts is about 300 students, a district spokesman said.

Asked by Smondrowski why elementary school classes can’t be livestreamed like middle and high school classes, Sirgo said, “Teachers didn’t feel it was developmentally appropriate.”

The recorded classes will be designed “with the virtual learner in mind,” she said, whereas a livestream of a class, particularly for young children, might not be as engaging.

When schools will move to virtual classes

District leaders plan to evaluate a handful of different ways that COVID-19-related illness and absence affects each school when deciding whether it should move to virtual classes.

The different points include:

• The number of cases of COVID-19 in the past 10 days
• The number of student absences
• The number of employee absences and how they will affect school operations
• The number of unfilled substitute requests
• The school community’s perspective on the ability to safely and effectively operate.

Despite some school board members’ pleas, there are no thresholds that will automatically trigger the change.

McKnight said administrators will work to develop certain metrics to help guide decisions and bring more ideas to the school board at later meetings. But, for now, the plan will be implemented as presented.

“I think we need to no longer be making decisions in the gray areas, then announcing them, so nobody really understands what factors were in play and how they were weighted,” board member Lynne Harris said.

As central office administrators evaluate the data each day (which will all be available by 10 a.m., Chief of Districtwide Services and Supports Dana Edwards said), they will flag any concerning trends over three days for school leaders, Department of Health officials and community members who are part of a review group for each school.

If a school is identified as one that should move to virtual classes, it will likely not happen immediately. Instead, there will be up to two business days before the shift to allow families to prepare, Edwards said.

The schools will stay in the virtual model for 10 calendar days.

Edwards said that of 119 of MCPS’ sites that offer child care, 103 have said they could offer some space for students whose schools move to the virtual format and need supervision. There are roughly 2,108 seats available across those sites, she said.