For the rest of the academic year, Montgomery County Public Schools will decide on a case-by-case basis whether inclement weather will cancel classes or if the district will shift to virtual classes for the day.

In a 7-1 vote on Tuesday, the school board approved the plan, which takes effect immediately.

Student member Hana O’Looney voted against the plan, saying MCPS did not take meaningful steps to get students’ input about the idea.

“I feel like we’re talking about students and how they feel without ever making an effort to actually include them and inform them,” she said. “… I think to make this decision without ever asking for input from our greater student community … is going to be a real hit to student morale at a time where we know students are already overworked and exhausted.”

Other school board members said the virtual option could avoid further disruptions to the school calendar and allow for more valuable instructional time than if more make-up days had to be added to the end of the academic year, when attendance is generally lower.

The decision comes as MCPS has to make up four snow days used in January, which could either cut into teachers’ professional development time or spring break or be tacked on to the end of the school year.

The district surveyed parents about the virtual option and kept the survey open for four days.

The parents who responded were roughly evenly split about keeping traditional snow days or using virtual classes.

But survey results were not representative of the district’s student body. About 46% of the 24,707 responses were from the parents of white students. White students make up about 25% of the district’s student body.

About 13% of responses were from the parents of Hispanic students, who make up about 33% of the student body.

There are about 158,000 students in MCPS.

Others raised concerns about a lack of outreach to solicit feedback from groups representing Black and Asian families, and for not surveying employees directly.

MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight repeatedly said during Tuesday’s school board meeting that the district has not “done away” with snow days. The district could still use snow days, but now has the option for virtual classes instead to avoid having to make up additional days.

If the virtual model is used, classes will operate on a two-hour delay schedule to give teachers a chance to prepare and allow students and families time to adjust.

MCPS officials said the Maryland State Department of Education approved the virtual plan, and that it only applies to this academic year. MCPS will consider whether to use the model in future years.

When MCPS foregoes snow days for virtual instruction, the state requires at least four hours of live instruction, that attendance be taken and that assignments be posted online for students who can’t participate in real time.

MCPS Associate Superintendent Diane Morris said the live instruction could include traditional classes, small group instruction and small group projects that “mirror in-person experiences.”

Technology support will be available online, over the phone and possibly at an in-person site if the weather allows.

If the forecast shows inclement weather could trigger a possible shift to virtual classes, MCPS plans to send a “get ready” message to families at least the day prior indicating what they need to do to prepare (like making sure students have their laptops), according to Chief of Finance and Operations Eugenia Dawson.

If it’s expected to be a one-day closure, meals for the next day will be sent home with students.

If the building closures are expected to last multiple days, some meal distribution centers will open throughout the county, Dawson said.

O’Looney said that by adopting the plan, the school board “is choosing to create a more inequitable learning environment” for students who don’t have reliable access to the internet, or who are in career and technical education programs with work that can’t be completed virtually.

She said community members have told her it is “an insensitive plan” that puts additional strain on students and teachers during an already difficult year.

“This is the same school system that talked about adding half days because we recognized the increased workload on staff and students so … doing this is walking back on that commitment to mental health and recognizing that increased workload we have,” O’Looney said.

MCPS officials said they have distributed more than 13,000 WiFi hot spots to families and will continue to distribute them, as needed. They added that when the district shifted to virtual classes in the spring of 2020 in response to COVID-19, more than 99% of students were able to connect to the internet and were “engaged” with their classes.

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