Two months since Montgomery County Public Schools began reopening for in-person classes and about a month before the end of the academic year, about 600 students who want to return to buildings are still taking virtual classes.
During a school board meeting on Tuesday, MCPS Chief of Teaching, Learning and Schools Janet Wilson said 615 students are “waitlisted” for in-person classes. Those students have asked to attend in-person classes, but are waiting for space in their schools that are operating on a limited capacity due to COVID-19.
Wilson said the majority of the students (342) are in elementary school, 129 are in middle school and 144 are in high school.
In mid-April, there were more than 1,200 students on a wait list, and on March 31, there were 1,542 waiting.
In the winter, MCPS sent a survey to all families asking them to commit to continuing with fully virtual classes or a mix of in-person and virtual classes for the remainder of the academic year.
At the time, MCPS officials said students could easily switch from in-person to all-virtual classes, but that space would be limited in schools and later requests to attend face-to-face classes might take time to accommodate.
According to the initial results of that survey, about 60,000 students chose to return to schools, while the remaining approximately 100,000 students either chose to remain fully virtual or did not respond and were automatically enrolled in the virtual option.
In recent months, as local COVID-19 metrics improved, vaccination rates increased and students’ struggles with virtual classes mounted, thousands more have asked to switch from fully virtual to the part-time, in-person option.
Some requests can be accommodated immediately, but at more crowded schools, there is a longer wait.
Some in the community have criticized the school board’s decision in in April to not alter its physical distancing requirements in classrooms from 6 feet to 3 feet. The change, advocates argue, would have made space to accommodate more students and cut into the waiting lists.
MCPS staff members and school board members said more than a half dozen times on Tuesday that they intend to provide all students a “more traditional” school year beginning in the fall, with traditional in-person classes five days per week.
Asked by board member Karla Silvestre what COVID-19 guidelines are expected to change to make that possible, and how the district is advocating for those changes, Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight said: “If I had to guess, I would say I would expect the guidance to continue to change, so some things in place right now to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will not exist as they do today.”
MCPS also plans to offer a “virtual academy” to some students who can’t return to buildings in the fall. The “virtual academy” will be a yearlong, all-virtual option available to students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
Students who apply and are accepted into the program will remain enrolled as students at their “home schools,” but will take all of their classes online. Students will be allowed to participate in in-person sports and extracurricular activities, and receive meals, at their home schools.
MCPS is still working to determine what criteria students might need to be accepted into the fully virtual model.
During a Montgomery County Council meeting on Tuesday morning, before the school board meeting, Council Member Hans Riemer said the development of the virtual academy without a definitive outlined plan for the fall could “create the impression” for some that MCPS is “working on a fallback” to not be face-to-face full-time.
He said he expects — and the whole council should, too — that MCPS follow through on its promise for in-person school in the fall.
“I think it’s important for us to be clear about our expectation, and that’s that schools will be open full-time in the fall,” Riemer said. “I see no reason it wouldn’t be full capacity in the fall.”
Council Member Craig Rice said MCPS has been “very clear” that it is “returning to full school in the fall.”
The Maryland State Board of Education in late April unanimously passed a resolution requiring districts across the state to permit in-person instruction, with a teacher in the classroom in the 2021-22 school year.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com