Coronavirus | Opinion

Opinion: As school district takes a pass on leadership, students suffer at home

Zoom rooms wear teachers and kids down, leave education in limbo

My heart is broken.

I was educated in Montgomery County. In the 20 years following — college, grad school and my career — I was often reminded how lucky I was to have that amazing start. Great families, amazing curriculum, top-notch teachers, etc.

In fact, after I lived for more than a decade in California, even the sunshine and beaches couldn’t keep me from moving my family to Montgomery County, which has one of the greatest school systems in the country.

And now, in the winter of 2021, approaching the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m crushed to have lost my faith in the system.

One of the most important things that I’ve heard my children’s teachers say again and again is that it’s OK to be wrong. Failing is part of success. It’s about the effort, not the outcome.

And yet, it seems MCPS missed that lesson. Everything that the superintendent, board of education and MCPS administrators have done since March amounts to nothing. They did not even try.

Yes, they conducted many surveys of parents, teachers and students. And set up testing to see where the children were academically at every turn. They collected data that will be analyzed for years.

But what have they done with that data? When will it be put into action?

Don’t get me wrong. Getting food out to families every day is no small feat. And the county has gone house to house trying to find kids who fail to show up to Zoom class.

People stepped up to help with necessities during a time of crisis. But for all those months that MCPS employees supported the families in need, who planned for the next step? Where would our kids be learning six months from now?

And the poor teachers and principals. I’ve sat in Zoom rooms and leadership meetings and spoken one-on-one with the educators. They are tired, and bearing the burden of a future unknown, living in the stress of (what feels like) permanent limbo.

Countless parents have picketed, sent letters, joined social media chat rooms, phoned county and state governing officials, recorded testimony for board meetings, and for what? It feels like no one is listening.

For all of the hours we have spent fighting to be heard, what were you doing? Why wasn’t someone standing up and saying, “Let’s try and get some special populations back into the schools,” even if it fails?

It feels like in this quest to have fairness to all populations, the decision makers are afraid to make unpopular decisions. So rather than try and possibly offend, no one is trying.

In all that’s going on in the news, isn’t this even more of a reason to practice what we all preach? This year brought to the forefront issues of diversity and inclusion. But these practices ingrained in our system do not change without strong leadership and difficult decisions.

We are crying out for leadership.

The hurt I feel invokes the sadness that surrounds the violent protests at the Capitol this month. It mimics the apathy of so many lawmakers who were afraid to stand up to an outgoing president for fear of tarnishing their reputations. Cowering to avoid unpopularity and re-election is the same on the local level as it is in the highest places of government.

Now, with the announcement that Superintendent Jack Smith will be retiring soon, we need leadership more than ever. Leaders who are willing to try and fail. With courage to take the route less popular, but as a step in the right direction.

I know that members of the board of education are parents themselves.

While most don’t have young kids, I hope they can think back to what it was like. How a year to a young child is like 10 to us.

I wish they could be in my living room, watching my daughter shrink into a shell of the confident, happy girl she used to be because she does not want to spend one more day staring at her teacher through a computer. Or that they could stand next to me when my autistic son throws his Chromebook because he will not get on the camera — not for anything.  

I’m not saying kids should be full-time back in school or all virtual. I’m not saying all teachers should be mandated to teach or lose jobs.

That’s not a decision for me to make. That is a decision that our leadership is supposed to be making and planning for.

Frankly, it should’ve been done 9 months ago. Yes, some of us will be disappointed with the outcomes, but at least someone who believes in our children would have tried.

I want to cry out that this problem will not go away. This pandemic, its repercussions and the other roadblocks that our educational system will face in the future are very real.

MCPS needs strong leaders to guide our principals, support our parents, and make some decisions. Now.

Jacqueline Renfrow lives in Rockville.