2021 | Schools

Education stories to watch in 2021

Return to schools, recovery of learning will be notable this year

In the education world in 2021, all eyes will be on the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

While some private schools in Montgomery County resumed in-person classes in the fall, the public school system kept its buildings closed and children took classes from home.

Early data show a staggering increase in the number of students failing virtual classes — an increase of as much as 600% for some groups — and learning loss in math and English.

How Montgomery County Public Schools helps its 161,000 students rebound when they return to buildings — or if they choose to continue virtual-only classes — will be among the most important topics to watch in 2021.

The work will be most important for MCPS’ youngest students, English language learners and students in special education programs, all of whom have struggled the most academically during the school closures, according to district data.

MCPS leaders have mentioned the possibility of a longer school year and more robust Saturday and summer school options as possible intervention measures, but haven’t outlined concrete implementation plans.

The return to school buildings will also be an important storyline next year.

School buildings have been closed for nearly a year, since March, and MCPS has outlined a plan to return that is set to begin in February.

In mid-December, the school board finalized its reopening plan, which brings students back to classes in two phases when certain COVID-19 data benchmarks are met.

Before buildings reopen, MCPS still needs to determine which schools will welcome students back first and the staffing. The district also needs to finish bargaining with the teachers union about working conditions when school buildings reopen.

About 60,000 students have chosen to participate in face-to-face classes during the second semester. Adding students who expressed no preference, who will be assigned to virtual-only lessons, about 60% of the district’s enrollment will continue to take classes solely from home.

District officials will consider how to modify and improve virtual learning, if at all, for those students and whether virtual-only classes will be a permanent option for students post-pandemic.

Other important stories to watch in the new year:

School resource officers

The future of MCPS’ school resource officer program is murky as the county considers legislation to ban police officers from being stationed in schools.

The school district is also separately reviewing student arrest and discipline data to determine if the program should continue as is, be modified, or be discontinued.

In November, Montgomery County Council Members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando proposed legislation to prohibit MCPS from having police assigned to schools.

The council members pointed to data that show school resource officers, often referred to as SROs, arrest Black and Hispanic students at a higher rate than white students, and the long-term effects of those arrests on students’ mental health and future police interactions.

The legislation has support from some activist groups, but some people — including fellow council members — disagree and say the lack of police in schools would put children at greater risk of harm.

A public hearing about the bill is scheduled for January 12.

The results of the school board’s review of the program are also expected in January.

Boundary analysis

A countywide review of school boundaries will enter its third calendar year after a handful of delays to the release of the project’s final report.

The review was launched in January 2019 to gather and analyze data about schools’ enrollment and socioeconomic composition.

The exercise has drawn strong interest from the community, with some camped firmly in opposition and others staunchly in support.

The firm hired for the project, WXY Studio, will not recommend any specific boundary changes. MCPS plans to use the data analysis as it authorizes future boundary studies for specific schools.

School district leaders said recently to expect the final report to be released in the spring.

MCEA contract

MCPS and the county’s teachers union, which represents more than 14,000 educators, are deadlocked over a new contract for union members.

The teachers’ current contract expired in July, after several extensions. The school board adopted the terms of the contract as temporary policy, so teachers are guaranteed the same pay and working conditions until a new contract is finalized.

As of the end of the year, the Montgomery County Education Association and MCPS were still at odds over some final components of the new agreement, none of which have any financial impact on the district’s budget, according to union leaders.

The two sides are pursuing formal mediation. If an agreement is not reached, the state’s Public School Labor Relations Board is expected to review issues still in debate — like proposals aiming to give teachers more planning time.

School names

It is likely that in 2021, the school district will decide whether to rename six schools that are named after slave owners.

In October, after a summer full of online petitions pushing for change, the school board passed a resolution directing staff members to work with six school communities — Richard Montgomery High, Thomas S. Wootton High, Montgomery Blair High, Col. Zadok Magruder High, Francis Scott Key Middle and John Poole Middle — to “determine whether these communities have expressed an interest in renaming the schools.”

The six schools, along with Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School, are in a 2019 report commissioned by the school board to determine which of its 208 schools are named after slave owners or people who “supported the institution of slavery.”

Lee Middle School will be renamed Odessa Shannon Middle School on July 4 after a multi-year renaming process.

This summer, amid national outcry after the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, focus returned to the schools’ names. Several online petitions were created, with hundreds of signatures, calling on the school board to change their names to honor people with less controversial pasts.

A report about the six school communities’ interest in possibly renaming their facilities is due in the summer of 2021.

The school board will then choose whether to move forward with a formal renaming process for each school.

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