‘A huge change’: Montgomery County reacts to statewide school closures

‘A huge change’: Montgomery County reacts to statewide school closures

Worries about child care, interruption to learning

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On Friday morning, teachers at Whetstone Elementary School in Montgomery Village sat cross-legged on the floor with their young students answering questions about an abrupt change to their schedules.

The afternoon prior, State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon announced that the more than 1,400 schools in Maryland would close for two weeks beginning Monday. The news sent local families into a frenzy to figure out how to provide supervision for children and sparked questions about academic schedules for the remainder of the year.

Schools throughout the state, including the 208 in Montgomery County, will be closed through March 27, with the potential for extensions as health officials work to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. There have been no decisions yet on how to make up for the lost time within the existing academic calendar.

Statewide school closures had also been announced in Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota and Virginia as of Friday afternoon. All schools in Washington, D.C., were ordered closed starting Monday, as well.

County officials on Thursday night urged community members to continue with their day-to-day lives, but to be “thoughtful and deliberate” in their interactions with people. Friday, community members said they’re struggling to maintain routines and a sense of normalcy as the list of event closures — plays, field trips, and sports games and practices — swells.

But some parents worry about deeper impacts of prolonged school closures.

Brigid Howe, parent of a third-grader at Arcola Elementary School — where MCPS implemented a nearly year-round schedule last school year to avoid a lengthy summer vacation — said she feels comfortable that her son, James, will be OK academically. She is concerned, however, about the overall success of the program.

The extended school year pilot was implemented at two high-poverty elementary schools in Silver Spring — Arcola and Roscoe Nix — to shorten summer break and negate “learning loss” during the summer break. The two schools have longer years with more frequent multi-day breaks.

“I do think this is going to be a challenge for the success of the pilot, but we are in such uncharted territory here, it’s hard to say,” Howe said. “I hope, at the very least, the extra six weeks of instruction our kids got this summer mean they will not fall farther behind.”

Teachers are also troubled about the interruption to students’ learning across the district.

Chris Lloyd, president of the county’s teachers union, said Friday afternoon there’s “no substitute for a teacher being in a room with children,” but it’s important to prioritize safety and educators are hopeful student progression won’t be affected too much.

MCPS’ short-term school closure plan was developed throughout February and into early March. It involves providing “reinforcement” activities to students of all grade levels for up to four weeks — ideally less — and not assigning any new material.

Lloyd said teachers feel prepared for the two-week closure, but less confident as work continues to develop a longer-term plan should schools remain closed into April.

“We have to make the best of what we can do right here, now, and I’m convinced we’re in the best situation we can be, given the circumstances,” Lloyd said. “Those questions about what happens if this goes on for longer will get answered, and we’ll learn as we go, but we had to get through the larger issues first.”

Accommodations for low-income students

MCPS on Friday afternoon named 20 sites where meals will be available for students while schools are closed. Meal bags will be available for people 18 and younger to “grab and go” from 11 a.m. through 1 p.m., Monday through Friday.

For many low-income families, the move is a critical lifeline.

At Flower Hill Elementary School in Gaithersburg, 65% of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, data MCPS uses to measure student poverty.

“I worry about our kids who rely on two meals per day from the school, and those families not having prep time for that or not receiving the information about where they can get meals,” said Kim Glassman, president of Flower Hill’s parent-teacher association. “Our volunteers are actively waiting and coordinating our efforts so … we can do our part and help in any way we can.”

The meal sites are:

• Montgomery Blair High School

• Clarksburg High School

• Albert Einstein High School

• Northwest High School

• Paint Branch High School

• Watkins Mill High School

• Argyle Middle School

• Forest Oak Middle School

• Gaithersburg Middle School

• Parkland Middle School

• Earle B. Wood Middle School

• Arcola Elementary School

• Capt. James Daly Elementary School

• Harmony Hills Elementary School

• Jackson Road Elementary School

• Joann Leleck Elementary School

• Rolling Terrace Elementary School

• Roscoe Nix Elementary School

• Judith A. Resnick Elementary School

• Weller Road Elementary School.

Another concern, Glassman said, is students’ mental health as their routines are interrupted and they’re thrust into new environments.

Her son, an elementary student, has shown signs of anxiety in recent days and “seems to be nervous.”

Anxiety has spread to teachers, too.

Every sniffle and cough from students leaves them worried about their health, and the added pressure of preparing for remote instruction is heavy for teachers, Lloyd said.

“Good learning occurs when your mind’s at ease … so all of these things add up,” Lloyd said. “I’m hopeful we’re all able to take a deep breath now and are able to reset our routines and prepare for this time and continue instruction in a different way.”

Child care

Thursday’s announcement gave families across the state three days to develop child care plans for young students.

Many parents are taking time off work, sometimes without pay, or making arrangements with their employers to work from home.

Some students with single parents or parents who work multiple jobs said they are worried about having to care for their siblings while balancing schoolwork.

Howe said she is trying to establish a plan with James’ best friend’s family and his father in which one adult would watch the two children for a few hours, then rotate.

Jason Thompson, father of a kindergartner at Washington Grove Elementary School in Gaithersburg, and his wife are both able to work remotely, easing stress about the closures. Thompson, project director at a clinical research organization in Rockville, also has sick leave he can use to care for his child.

“I really feel for the other parents that are not as lucky, and can only imagine how tough it must be trying to figure this all out,” Thompson said.

High school seniors’ anxiety

For high school seniors, there’s a heightened sense of urgency.

Those approximately 12,000 students are approaching deadlines for graduation credit requirements, student service learning hours and local, state and national tests.

“I’m a bit worried about the lack of preparation for these exams and the amount of self-studying that I’ll most likely have to do,” Valerie Wang, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat. “Especially amongst seniors, everyone’s primary concern is with the possible cancellation of quintessential ‘senior events’ such as prom and graduation.”

As of Friday, the College Board still planned to administer Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests in May, according to a message distributed to students.

Students have been provided online resources to study for the tests.
MCPS was scheduled to host SAT testing on March 25, but the date has been postponed to April 14.

During a school board committee meeting on Wednesday morning, MCPS Chief Academic Officer Maria Navarro said the school district is “closely monitoring our seniors” and working with state agencies to determine next steps if there are extended school closures.

For now, Wang wrote, there’s an “air of uncertainty” and students are devising plans to stay in touch with each other.

“Thanks to social media, there isn’t as much of a concern about staying connected (my friends and I have already agreed to do group FaceTime calls to get some work done together and keep up),” Wang wrote. “But with differing levels of informal quarantining from different parents, it’ll definitely be hard to meet up in person, which will be a huge change from school.”

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

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