2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Spend a day in school buildings if you think they should reopen

Come to a meeting, have lunch, wear the same personal protective equipment that teachers will get

In the latest round of battles about reopening Montgomery County Public Schools, some parents and the Montgomery County Board of Education are toying with the idea of dispensing with health metrics as the guidelines for safe return to buildings.

The board says some high-needs students will return to buildings on March 1, though it didn’t explain clearly how community transmission rates would factor into that change.

Some parent groups would like all students to return at the same time. They say that the steady decreases in overall COVID-19 rates mean schools are safe for kids and adults to crowd into classrooms, even with localized transmission exceeding 30 cases per 100,000 in some parts of the county, as Bethesda Beat reported on Feb. 5.

The board and the parents calling for relaxed health standards can easily demonstrate their confidence in in-person school safety. All they need to do is commit to returning to school themselves.

The board has already said that it will start holding meetings in person, instead of via Zoom.

I think it can build even further on that to improve confidence in its safety standards. I suggest that, effective immediately, the school board begin conducting all of its business in public school buildings. This would include meetings with public testimony. 

Anyone wishing to testify would need to appear in person. Board members or members of the public wishing to participate remotely would need to submit a valid Americans With Disabilities Act claim to be excused.

That is the standard for teachers who want to remain remote, as I understand it. Board members and concerned residents should have no problem adhering to the same standards. 

Once schools are open again, these same people — including the most vocal reopening advocates — should commit to spending all day inside school buildings. They should be required to work inside the nearest public middle school, regardless of the quality of the ventilation system inside the building.

School assignments would be entirely contingent on address, as is the case for the majority of MCPS students. 

The adults in the schools would be given precisely the same personal protective equipment as teachers and staff members — no more, no less. Any additional PPE, including hand soap or hand sanitizer to replace dwindling supplies, would be their responsibility and their own expense — no reimbursements from the school district. 

I ask that they also commit to using student bathroom and locker room facilities, as well as eating meals with students.

If they qualify, they may have free or reduced-price meals. If not, they must bring food from home and store it in the same way students and teachers store their bagged lunches. They are welcome to use any common microwaves in the schools to heat food up. 

I know this initiative would cause a space crunch in schools that are already overcrowded. This is a problem.

Last year, the Board of Education delayed the boundary assessment study that might have led to a plan to ease crowding at overfilled schools. A vocal contingent of parents asked to delay that process. The pandemic further complicated the matter, so the board set the question aside.

As inconvenient as dealing with overcrowded schools is, there is nothing to be done about it now. Board members will just have to be creative about space in the school buildings where they work, much as teachers and administrators have for many years.

These relatively simple changes from education policymakers and speedy reopening advocates would show their confidence in their stated positions.

Adopting them would go a long way to reassuring parents like me that school buildings are safe enough for teachers and students. I see no reason that they wouldn’t want to accept my proposal. 

Once they do, I will happily support all return-to-building initiatives. For now, I will continue to believe that health metrics, not public opinion, should drive reopening plans.

Rebekah Kuschmider is a writer and MCPS parent living in Kensington.

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