2021 | Schools

UPDATED: As COVID-19 cases surge, Montgomery County school board delays reopening until March

Students will have lost one year of in-person classes before earliest return

The Montgomery County Board of Education on Tuesday voted to delay students' return to buildings until at least March 15.

screenshot via livestream

This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2021, to include more information about the reopening vote.

Montgomery County students’ return to schools will be pushed back again as local COVID-19 cases continue to surge.

During a meeting on Tuesday, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted 7-1 to delay its reopening plan for the third time, pushing back the Feb. 1 start date until at least March 15 — more than a year after buildings closed.

“I know this is difficult for some, and for others, they’re relieved,” MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith said. “… We think this makes the most sense at this point.”

The only board member who voted against the new delay was Rebecca Smondrowski. She voiced frustration with the lack of information about the rollout of the delayed reopening.

In December, the school board approved its return plan, which outlines a phased return to buildings. The plan, however, maintains two important metrics that must be met countywide before that can happen. Those metrics are a COVID-19 case rate of 15 per 100,000 residents or less, or a test positivity rate below 5%.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the school board, with advice from county officials, determined those metrics cannot be met by Feb. 1.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Montgomery County had a case rate of 49.8 per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate of 7.7%, both well above the district’s reopening thresholds and trending worse. The case rate is at its highest level since the pandemic began.

The school board will meet again in January and in February to review COVID-19 metrics more. A decision about the March 15 reopening will be made by Feb. 23. The board will also review the district’s academic calendar to determine if changes should be made to the scheduled spring break, in late March into early April.

If schools begin reopening on March 15, students would have about three months of in-person classes before the end of the academic year on June 16.

Smith is expected to hold a press conference on Wednesday afternoon about the decision.

During Tuesday’s school board meeting, he underscored that there are many different opinions about school reopening, but that the decision to keep schools closed “makes the most sense.”

The data benchmarks could be adjusted, Smith said, if health officials determine it is safer to reopen once the majority of staff members are vaccinated.

“Because you agree or disagree with what is done today that does not change the commitment … to the best education we can provide in the most difficult, strange, unusual, unprecedented, whatever cliche word we want to use, that any of us have lived through in our lifetimes,” Smith said.

School board member Pat O’Neill added: “Everyone can offer an opinion, but it’s harder to take the responsibility for health and safety, and health and safety has to be the No. 1 priority.”

She also disputed claims that the county’s teachers union, the Montgomery County Education Association, has “forced” the school board to delay reopening.

“I would argue that some of the biggest bullies … who have reached out to us are not MCPS employees,” O’Neill said.

Smith said MCPS has contacted the state Department of Education about “building in time” for staff members to prepare buildings to reopen, likely canceling some virtual classes to allow teachers to set up their classrooms.

A variety of opinions

When schools do reopen, MCPS plans a gradual return for students and staff.

If countywide data are lower than the established benchmarks, some students — those in special education programs, pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade, high school seniors and those in certain career and technical education programs — who chose to participate in face-to-face classes will be welcomed back to schools.

Then, when the county hits a threshold of 5 to 10 cases per 100,000 (given the test positivity rate remains below 5%), the rest of the students who opted for in-person classes would be allowed to return to buildings.

Smondrowski questioned whether all students could be brought back at once, rather than using a phased approach.

Smith said he doesn’t think the “ordering or priority will change, unless the board directs us otherwise.”

The question, he said, is “how quickly we can accelerate that process.”

Social distancing and masks will be required when schools reopen, and classes will still “look a lot different” than they did pre-pandemic.

It has been 305 days since MCPS students were last in schools for regular in-person classes.

On March 12, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered a two-week, statewide closure of all schools in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some schools across the state, including some private schools in Montgomery County, have since reopened for face-to-face classes.

But MCPS — the state’s largest school district, with more than 161,000 students — has remained all-virtual as some parents push for a return to classrooms.

The parents cite national and international studies that suggest schools are not the sources of major coronavirus spread, lower grades, social isolation and learning loss in their arguments.

Some of the studies cited by the parents have one major caveat: They say school reopenings are safe if the rate of community transmission outside of the buildings is low. In Montgomery County, where most of the metrics are in the “high” or “very high” tiers of transmission, that is not true.

During a County Council meeting on Tuesday morning, Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of the county’s Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said it is difficult to compare other countries’ or states’ school reopenings because each place has different circumstances. And, he added, while children experience severe illness from the virus less often than adults, there is limited information about the long-term effects of contracting COVID-19.

“The long-term implications of COVID for children and adults is still very poorly understood. It is a very complex picture,” Stoddard said. “I agree we want to get children back into schools for education … but I think my biggest consternation is that we know there’s going to be substantial educational loss at this point, but what we don’t know is what the medical and long-term risks are.”

Still, some parents continued to lobby for in-person classes during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Sara Berkholtz said her student in a special education program does not receive adequate services, and has regressed academically since buildings closed.

She urged the school board to commit to bringing all special education back into schools by March 1. Berkholtz said that should be attainable, especially because educators will likely begin to be vaccinated in the coming weeks.

“There’s no logical reason to delay the return of special education students past March 1, regardless of the community case rates,” she said.

Extracurricular eligibility

The school board on Tuesday also voted to continue allowing all students to be eligible for extracurricular activities, regardless of their grades.

In May, the board suspended grading policies that typically determine when students are eligible for extracurriculars. The suspension will remain in effect through the first quarter of the 2021-22 academic year.

MCPS is not allowing in-person sports practices or competitions. Teams meet via Zoom for meetings and some conditioning.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com