2021 | Opinion

Opinion: MCPS ignores evidence, resists governor in continuing in-person holdout

Classroom instruction happens safely elsewhere, should return locally

Remote instruction has brought on the four horsemen of the educational apocalypse: widespread youth depression, exacerbated inequality, exhausted parents and unprecedented learning loss.

Giving hope among this darkness, on Jan. 21, Gov. Larry Hogan, in conjunction with the state Health Department and schools superintendent, said that there is no public health reason for keeping schools closed and insisted they reopen by March 1.

This aligns the state with the scientific consensus that schools can be reopened safely with the proper protocols, regardless of community case levels. 

Several large studies, including those conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have shown that spread in schools is minimal when basic mitigation measures are in place. Additionally, studies from the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway show that teachers are at no higher risk of hospitalization or death in occupation-level analyses.

Sadly, despite this research, MCPS is resisting the governor’s call for live instruction by developing a model of teaching called “support to virtual.”

With the support to virtual teaching model, children come to classrooms and use Zoom with their teachers, who are elsewhere on a screen. This may technically be the bare minimum to do what the governor required, while at the same time also serving the interests of the teachers’ union.

This proposal is simply a scaled-up version of the “learning hubs,” which are already run out of MCPS buildings by low-wage aides who babysit and help students with their computers, but do not teach. 

Like a villainous genie, MCPS is granting the governor’s wish literally.

Hogan claimed that he wanted kids back in classrooms, but apparently didn’t specify that teachers had to be there with them.  So, that’s exactly what MCPS students are going to get.

They don’t seem to care how ineffective remote instruction is, or that school closures are especially harmful to special needs and minority children. Scientific evidence has shown that schools can be safe for both educators and their students. Why must we settle for this subpar level of education?

The governor’s obvious intention was to free students from their screens and to reunite them with their teachers (in one room). There are proven models of safe live instruction for MCPS to accomplish this.

For some schools, dividing students and teachers into exclusively live and virtual classes would be prudent. Otherwise, schools with higher rates of returning students could offer a concurrent model with teachers working with students in the classroom, as well as the few virtual students concomitantly.

While unions claim this latter form of teaching is too encumbering for their teachers, many schools around the country are successfully implementing this strategy to maximize the quality of instruction provided to all of their students.

By not adopting one of these superior models, academically, this is no different than learning from home and may even be substantially worse for those who require continuous adult support.

MCPS is also justifying its support to virtual model because of the difficulties of spacing constraints and an overflow of students to other classrooms.

However, the 6-foot distancing rule, established before masking was known to be extremely effective, is actually an overly conservative policy based on an oversimplification of outdated science. Studies demonstrate that when everyone is masked, the exposure to respiratory droplets can be reduced by 99%, even at very close distances.

Studies have also found that 3 feet is perfectly suitable and is supported by public health experts from Harvard, Brown and Tufts, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Additionally, the CDC and the World Health Organization allow relaxation of distancing when masks are worn.

This has been reinforced by Maryland’s state schools superintendent, Karen Salmon, who stated that 6 feet of physical distance between students is not a requirement to bring students back to school and that distancing to the extent possible is sufficient. Harford County, for example, has gained more days of live instruction by following state guidance on distancing.

Many schools also believe staffing shortages will compel them to implement support to virtual learning. Despite extensive evidence that there is low risk of infection in schools with mitigation measures, some teachers continue to refuse to reenter classrooms to provide live instruction. Union leadership appears to be amplifying this message into policy.

Unfortunately, evidence or safety enhancements can’t seem to budge them. Not vaccine prioritization for teachers. Not the enormous sums spent on personal protective equipment and building upgrades.

And not even the county’s own experience with safely operating learning hubs in MCPS buildings since September.

As the mayors of Chicago and New York City have discovered, the teachers unions are not negotiating in good faith. There is no policy short of remaining closed that will appease them.

Almost every other state in the country has found a way to provide live instruction to their students. It will work here, too, and no further appeasement or accommodation is necessary for MCPS schools to reopen safely with teachers in classrooms.  

For nearly a year, the best interests of students have been subordinated to the whims of a union that cannot be placated and a profoundly inflexible school system. 

MCPS has kept our schools closed for a year despite a scientific consensus supporting reopening. MCPS prioritizes teachers for vaccination with no commitment to return. MCPS makes no serious effort to provide live instruction to students despite Hogan’s directive.

Enough is enough. Now is a critical time to keep the pressure on the Board of Education and other county representatives to ensure that, by March 1, our children get the live instruction in schools that they need and deserve.

Margery Smelkinson, who lives in Brookdale, is an immunology and infectious disease expert who has advised local nonprofits in COVID-19-related public health strategies. Her research has focused on many pathogens, including influenza and SARS-CoV2.

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