2022 | Schools

Health officials recommend more virtual options as MCPS struggles; Elrich suggests ‘pause’

District evaluating recommendation, spokesman says

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Montgomery County health officials on Friday recommended that the school district offer more virtual options for students to help ease the burden of staffing shortages that are “hindering the quality of education.”

During a meeting with the Montgomery County House Delegation on Friday morning, County Executive Marc Elrich said Department of Health and Human Services leaders were meeting with MCPS and would recommend a “pause” on full in-person instruction as the district confronts a mountain of problems.

Instead, he said, the district would offer more of a “hybrid” approach, in which some students are in school buildings while others are at home. Both groups, he said, would learn the same lessons via Zoom.

If needed, students in schools might be supervised by staff members who are not teachers.

“The school system needs to take a pause in the chaos,” Elrich said. “It’s way too chaotic right now.”

Elrich could not immediately be reached for additional comment following the meeting.

In an interview following the meeting, County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said the idea is to help alleviate the strain caused by a severe staffing shortage and inability to get substitute teachers to cover dozens of classes every day. Often in those situations, the quality of education is diminished, he said. The shortages are caused by the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or need to quarantine due to an exposure.

So, health officials didn’t want to recommend the entire district pivot to virtual classes, but offer an option that allows those who need it to be in buildings. Schools and classrooms that aren’t experiencing challenges due to COVID-19 could continue to operate normally, Stoddard said.

It’s not clear how long the model would be in place, if implemented by MCPS, but the idea is through at least the current surge in cases, Stoddard said. He added that health officials would still need to determine what metrics would be used to drive decisions.

In a text message Friday, MCPS spokesman Chris Cram wrote that the district will evaluate the recommendation and “look forward to collaborating with county leaders to do what’s best for students.”

Stoddard emphasized that the decision about whether to implement the county’s recommendation is up to MCPS.

County Council President Gabe Albornoz said MCPS’ problems in the past two weeks — bus shortages, staffing problems, high COVID-19 rates, troubles accessing tests and an erosion of trust in the community — have “risen to a level that calls into question whether” continuing with in-person classes “remains possible.”

Others, too, have questioned whether a temporary shift to virtual classes would allow officials to come up with a better plan to address the problems.

Both the union that represents the district’s teachers and the union that represents administrators this week shared serious frustrations with the current situation, planning and communication.

The teachers union passed a vote of “no confidence” in the ability of Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight and the school board to correctly handle the pandemic’s impact.

The administrators union’s board of directors penned a letter to district leaders that says the district has “always been a school district that others have looked up to as a model.” But, it says: “Unfortunately, it is our belief that due to poor communication and lack of a cohesive, consistent plan, we no longer hold that elite status.”

It asked the district to “pause” in-person instruction to “take the pulse of the current state of COVID in our schools” to “develop our strategies related to operations, staffing shortages and contingency plans.”

It also asked for more collaboration with teachers, administrators and community members when making decisions, and to come up with a “viable solution” to a districtwide staffing shortage.

Eleven schools moved to virtual classes on Jan. 4 as reported COVID-19 cases rise. Those schools are expected to reopen for in-person classes on Tuesday.

The decision for the schools to close was made on a threshold of 5% of students and staff members testing positive in the past two weeks. That measure is no longer used by the district.

Instead, in a school board meeting on Thursday MCPS officials said they will evaluate a handful of different ways that COVID-19-related illness and absence affects each school.

The different points include:

• The number of cases of COVID-19 in the past 10 days
• The number of student absences
• The number of employee absences and how they will affect school operations
• The number of unfilled substitute requests
• The school community’s perspective on the ability to safely and effectively operate.

As central office administrators evaluate the data each day (which will all be available by 10 a.m., Chief of Districtwide Services and Supports Dana Edwards said), they will flag any concerning trends over three days for school leaders, Department of Health officials and community members who are part of a review group for each school.

The schools will stay in the virtual model for 10 calendar days.

Other frustrations

During the delegation meeting on Friday, Elrich said Department of Health and Human Services officials have at times been frustrated by MCPS’ messaging that falsely implies that decisions they make regarding the pandemic come from recommendations made by the health department.

Sometimes, Stoddard said later, the district has made decisions that are not in line with Department of Health and Human Services recommendations, yet characterized the decision as made “in consultation with DHHS.”

“I would not read ‘in consultation with DHHS’ as meaning DHHS agrees or fully supports any particular measure,” Stoddard said. “There are cases where the county makes a recommendation that MCPS either can’t or doesn’t want to make work … which is their right and their job. But they don’t often articulate that, so we’re left in a position of defending things that were not necessarily our recommendations.”

Staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this story.

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