Credit: File photo

In Montgomery County public education news, the 2022-23 school year is sure to be busy. 

This year, districts across the country are again faced with addressing the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ academic progress. In Montgomery County public schools, data have shown sharp decreases in achievement in key courses such as math and literacy, blamed in large part on an extended period of virtual classes in 2020 and 2021. Now, most students are back in the classroom (aside from some who applied to remain in MCPS’ full-time virtual school) and this year could be pivotal in their recovery, according to MCPS curriculum leaders. 

The important issues to follow this year include: 

Learning gaps 

Addressing the gaps in learning that students experienced during pandemic schooling will continue to be a priority, MCPS officials say. 

There are interventions that have been put in place — such as expanded tutoring and after-school opportunities — with federal coronavirus relief funds. 

The district this week pledged in a meeting with the school board to also track the effectiveness of the methods to ensure they’re reaching enough students, and the students who need them. 

There’s an emphasis on ensuring all students “have access to grade-level” material, rather than spending large amounts of time trying to catch up on content missed in past years, Chief Academic Officer Peggy Pugh said during a school board meeting this week. Teachers will be expected to focus on grade-level content and teach missed content (or refer students to tutoring and other interventions) as needed. 

Staffing 

It’s clear that MCPS will start this school year with hundreds of staff vacancies. That includes teachers, paraeducators, bus drivers, building services workers and others, all critical to schools’ success. How MCPS handles this issue — and any surges in absences and vacancies that may occur throughout the year — will be critical. Many of the unfilled positions deal directly with some of the district’s most vulnerable students, such as those in special education programs and those who are English language learners. These students were among the most affected academically during virtual learning, according to MCPS officials, and have, at times, gone without their normal services. 

On the Friday before teachers reported for preservice week, MCPS sent an urgent email, asking dual-certified teachers who were not assigned to a special education program to consider volunteering to be reassigned to a special education class. The goal was to offset the shortage in special education teachers; there were about 93 vacancies as of Tuesday morning. 

The message said the teachers union agreed to the request, which included a $5,000 “incentive” for teachers chosen for reassignment. But in a message to members that night, the union said it had not agreed and had actually denied the proposal. The two sides bargained on the issue over the weekend and into Wednesday. A new agreement was announced Wednesday afternoon, with the same incentive, plus additional pay for other special education teachers who take on additional work.

School safety 

MCPS will start this year with a new model of the former school resource officer (SRO) program. Last year, MCPS removed SROs from its high schools for the first time in nearly two decades. Officers were instead assigned to school clusters and patrolled areas around schools. Following a review of school safety procedures prompted by the January shooting at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood, in which one student shot and seriously injured another, MCPS again modified its relationship with police, allowing officers back into buildings, albeit in a limited capacity. 

The county’s community engagement officer (CEO) program replaced the SRO program at the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year. Under the SRO program, specially trained county police officers were stationed full time in high schools. The program was scrapped after criticism that it led to higher arrests among Black and Hispanic students and community calls for more emphasis on mental health resources than policing in schools. Proponents countered that the SRO program led to stronger relationships between police officers and the school communities.

In April, MCPS signed a memorandum of understanding with six law enforcement agencies in the county outlining the responsibilities for CEOs in the 2022-2023 academic year. The current agreement allows CEOs to occupy a space near the front office of a cluster’s high school. That’s a change from the prior version of the CEO program in which officers patrolled schools within a cluster, but couldn’t remain inside the buildings.

This year, both supporters and opponents of police officers in schools likely will be monitoring the new version of the program to see if it’s being implemented as intended and to determine its strengths and weaknesses. 

The district’s leadership 

Even though MCPS Superintendent Monifa McKnight has been leading the district since Jack Smith’s retirement in June 2021, first in an interim position until permanently assuming the role in July, she is starting her first school year as the official leader of MCPS.

McKnight took over at the height of the pandemic and faced related challenges — such as students’ academic regression, staffing challenges due to COVID-19 illnesses — and made difficult decisions about school closures and other health measures. 

Since assuming the permanent position, McKnight has said her focus is, in part, on rebuilding trust with the community through frequent, clear communication. She’s also said she’ll focus on supporting the mental health of students and staff members and “returning the district’s focus to equitable teaching and learning.” She’s experienced some turnover in the district’s top positions — from the transportation and special education departments to the technology and communications offices — and made new hires who are coming in at a key moment in the district’s pandemic recovery. With her focus on equity, McKnight said this week a report from an audit looking at MCPS’ “anti-racist” practices will be released in October. 

In the same vein, half of the school board’s eight seats are up for grabs in the November general election. Incumbents are running in three of the races, but Judy Docca did not run for reelection in District 1, so there’s at least one guaranteed new member. In the July 19 primary, challenger Julie Yang received more votes than incumbent Scott Joftus for the District 3 seat. (Joftus was appointed in 2021 to fill the remaining year of Pat O’Neill’s term, following her death in September.) And in District 5, incumbent Brenda Wolff was neck-and-neck with challenger Valerie Coll. Incumbent Karla Silvestre was well ahead of challengers in the at-large race. 

The races are nonpartisan and the top two vote-getters in each move on to the Nov. 8 general election. 

So, it’s possible to see some new faces on the school board, which plays a critical role in setting policies and priorities for the school district. 

COVID policies 

MCPS this year is largely moving away from the widespread COVID-19 mitigation measures that have been in place since school buildings reopened for in-person classes in 2021. That includes screening testing, test-to-stay, mandatory masking and quarantines for people who were exposed to the virus. Now, the district is relying on four key principles to guide its COVID-19 response: ensuring people are vaccinated and that they are washing their hands and staying home when sick, as well as promoting good respiratory etiquette (like coughing or sneezing into an elbow, away from others).

The changes will affect other district operations, such as students’ ability to attend in-person classes and staffing, but some education advocates fear loosening precautions could lead to more infections and more negative consequences.