Candidates disagree on MCPS’ handling of remote learning

Candidates disagree on MCPS’ handling of remote learning

Boundary analysis also discussed at first school board forum before general election

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Montgomery County school board candidates participate in a forum on Monday night.

Screenshot via livestream

The six candidates vying for three seats on the Montgomery County Board of Education had varying opinions on Monday about how the school district has handled the shift to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three candidates said during Monday’s forum that they feel MCPS has done a satisfactory job shifting from face-to-face to virtual instruction, but has fallen short in some areas. The other three candidates — including two incumbents — said MCPS has done its best given the unprecedented circumstances.

The forum, sponsored by the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Rockville and the Lincoln Park Historical Society, was the first since the primary election in June.

Steve Solomon, running against incumbent Shebra Evans for the District 4 seat, said the shift to remote learning in March left many students unable to interact with their teachers for several weeks, which he called “unacceptable.”

Solomon said the current model — with more live instruction and a more rigorous schedule — is better for many students, but inadequate for some, particularly elementary school students and those in special education programs.

“We need to find a way to get kids back in school safely at some point,” Solomon said.

Evans argued that MCPS had to shift to remote learning quickly, in a way never been done before. So, she said, “considering the circumstances, we’re doing the best we can.”

Fellow incumbent Rebecca Smondrowski, who holds the District 2 seat, agreed that MCPS has “worked hard to ensure” students have laptops and teachers were provided with training. She said she is excited about the opportunities that could emerge, like ensuring all students have access to technology and the internet outside of school, and possibly using that technology to allow students to enroll in virtual classes not offered at their school.

Smondrowski’s challenger, Michael Fryar, said he believes MCPS performed an “amazing pivot” and is “accommodating students as well as they can.”

“This system was a reaction to a crisis,” Fryar said. “Looking through that lens, it’s amazing what they’ve done.”

In the at-large race, Sunil Dasgupta and Lynne Harris acknowledged that the shift to remote learning was unique and challenging, but there is room for improvement.

Harris said MCPS has done a “great job” providing technology to students and staff members, but there needs to be a greater urgency on some student populations returning to school buildings. That includes students in special education programs, English learners and students in career and technology programs, she said.

Dasgupta lamented about the school board’s late passing of the final plan for the fall semester.

The school board voted to approve the fall plan less than a week before classes began on Aug. 31 and the day after teachers began their annual pre-service week.

“We should have decided much earlier about what we were going to do and given teachers time to adapt, to learn and to train,” Dasgupta said. “That did not happen, unfortunately.”

Candidates also answered questions about the school district’s achievement gap, third-grade students’ reading proficiency, the districtwide boundary analysis and MCPS curriculum.

About the boundary analysis, which began in early 2019 to explore the ways in which boundaries affect schools’ enrollment and demographics, candidates said it is critical to have intentional, open dialogue with community members, especially those who have criticism or concerns.

Harris, however, said it is important that county leaders not bow to the “loudest voices … interested in protecting their privilege, instead of looking out for the interests of our diverse” student body.

The boundary analysis has been fraught with contention since the beginning as issues of race and diversity emerged. Some community members feel the analysis should focus primarily on ensuring each school in MCPS is diverse, while others feel it should focus on ensuring all students can attend the school closest to their home.

“We also have to have a strong compass for what we stand for as a school system and we have to be committed to moving in the direction of creating truly equitable opportunities, and truly excellent opportunities for all students, regardless of ZIP code,” Harris said.

Dasgupta advocated for routine, comprehensive boundary analyses, while Fryar and Solomon said MCPS should implement more “school choice.”

They said students from crowded schools should be able to choose whether they want to attend other underenrolled schools, rather than changing boundaries and “forcing” students to change schools.

Election Day is Nov. 3, and people can vote in person at several sites throughout the county. Early voting will be held from Oct. 26 to Nov. 2. Residents can request a mail-in ballot until Oct. 20.

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

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