Opinion: Creativity needed to safely ease MCPS back into in-person schooling

Opinion: Creativity needed to safely ease MCPS back into in-person schooling

Marginalized students suffer most during distance learning

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On March 13, students walked out of Montgomery County’s public schools for a two-week “pause,” expecting to soon return to their lockers, desks and classrooms.

As the danger of COVID-19 came into focus, those initial two weeks became a month, then a quarter, and soon enough, the public school system was gearing up for a fully online fall semester.

We’re now several weeks into that semester — the second-part of this county’s forced experiment in online schooling.

While the new semester has brought a slew of needed improvements to the county’s distance learning program, those adjustments only hit the margins of an educational medium that falls short pedagogically, logistically and socially.

Distance learning was a reasonable initial response to the pandemic. But, educationally, it’s bad for everybody. And ultimately, the negative ramifications of digital schooling will fall hardest on the marginalized students of Montgomery County. We must and can do better by those kids.

To be clear: Swinging school doors open and welcoming students back with few changes is not a viable path forward. The advocates for a rushed and reckless reopening, from President Donald Trump to Governor Larry Hogan, are being dangerously unserious.

At the same time, those who outright dismiss the idea of any safe in-person learning are overlooking the current approach’s impact on our most vulnerable learners. With the health of our educators, safety of our students and a year’s worth of education in the balance, we shouldn’t allow partisan all-or-nothing positions to dictate how our schools operate.

What we should look to is the data. Student engagement in the U.S. declined significantly during the past year of remote learning. A recent McKinsey & Company analysis found that just one more semester of online schooling could result in six months of lost learning for students, and close to a full year of lost learning for Black, Latino and low-income children.

Parents from all races, socioeconomic statuses and parts of the county recognize that their children deserve better than the current system.

But, right now, only parents of means have the resources to do something about it. Those parents are placing their kids in private schools, hiring tutors to supplement online instruction or putting their children in “learning pods” led by paid instructors.

Among those left behind in remote classrooms, resources are dictating instructional quality.

How clearly a teacher’s voice comes through or how quickly a student can answer a question is now a consequence of wealth. Those with the fastest WiFi, highest quality cameras and newest computers — all proxies for parental income — have the easiest capacity to learn.

And without the equalizing effect of the physical classroom, the circumstances of a student’s home are now playing an even greater role in their academic potential.

Many essential workers are forced to choose between leaving bills unpaid and leaving their children unsupervised to learn alone. Many students now face additional familial obligations: needing to take care of younger siblings or grandparents at home, drawing from time they would have normally been in full engagement with teachers and their classmates.

That’s not even mentioning the terrifying stress of living through a deadly global pandemic, a burden that rests disproportionately on our Latino and Black neighbors.

The collision of this pandemic’s unequal impact with an already daunting educational opportunity gap has created a grave confluence of circumstances that, if unchecked, threaten to wipe away a generation’s worth of progress on educational equity.

With an increasingly deadly virus hanging over us, there are no easy solutions.

But throughout this county’s history, when faced with no clear path forward, our school district has forged new ones. Our county must again lead the country and urgently reimagine teaching and learning for our new distanced world.

It can begin by drawing on the thousands of college students taking a leave of absence or living at home this semester — mobilizing a corps of MCPS alumni to individually support students and lead small learning pods.

As the summer winds down, MCPS should bring interested teachers and students back to conduct small classes outside, making use of the county’s school fields, parks and parking lots. We can look to the outdoor classrooms of the early 1900s tuberculosis pandemic or the ongoing examples set by schools in Vermont and Florida as models.

According to physicians and public health professionals, if executed correctly, even limited indoor learning is possible.

However MCPS chooses to innovate pandemic-era education, it must begin by prioritizing the health, safety and agency of its teachers and students.

Any in-person instruction demands, at a bare minimum, guaranteed personal protective equipment, sanitization supplies, improved classroom ventilation and the individual choice whether to remain remote or go in-person. Our teachers, who have worked exceptionally hard on behalf of students to make the most of our current flawed system, deserve nothing less. 

The racial and socioeconomic achievement gap existed long before COVID-19.

Right now, we get to decide whether it will be better or worse on the other side of this pandemic. To do so, the people and elected leaders of Montgomery County will have to come together and do things differently — exchanging rigid bureaucracy for nimbleness and meekness for possibility.

A new model of COVID-19-era learning is within reach and if there’s anywhere it can be done, it’s here in Montgomery County.

Nate Tinbite is a former student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education and a 2020 graduate of John F. Kennedy High School. Ananya Tadikonda is a former student member of the board and a 2019 graduate of Richard Montgomery High School. Matt Post is a former student member of the board and a 2018 graduate of Sherwood High School.

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Editor’s note: Bethesda Beat encourages readers to send us their thoughts about local topics we have covered for consideration as an op-ed piece in our Saturday newsletter. Email them to editorial@bethesdamagazine.com. We require a name and hometown for publication. We also require a phone number (not for publication) for us to verify who wrote the piece. Please provide a source for any facts in your piece that were not part of our coverage; if they can’t be verified, they likely will be omitted.

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