2021 | Schools

Interim superintendent says students, teachers ‘absolutely will’ be in buildings in fall

More information expected at June school board meeting

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The Montgomery County Board of Education meets on Tuesday with some members in person and some tuning in via Zoom.

Caitlynn Peetz

Montgomery County Public Schools’ incoming interim superintendent was clear during a meeting on Tuesday: Students will be in buildings full-time, with a teacher, in the fall.

A return to a more normal schedule will be the “default” for the district that has been slow to reopen in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, Monifa McKnight told the school board.

The caveat is that there will be a full-time virtual option for students who cannot return to buildings for health or other personal reasons.

But, McKnight said, every student who wants to be in a classroom in the fall “absolutely will.”

“In-person is the default,” she said. “The expectation is that all of our students will come back. For those who have extenuating circumstances, there is a virtual option. Outside of that, all other students, we are excited to welcome them back to an in-person experience in the fall.”

Later in the meeting, McKnight added that the classes will be taught by a teacher who is in the classroom, as well.

This spring, as some students returned to buildings and others remained in a fully virtual format, some teachers taught classes virtually while students in the building were supervised by other staff members.

“We are expecting staff back to accommodate the in-person experience,” McKnight said, again emphasizing that some staff members will be assigned to the fully virtual option.

A more comprehensive plan for the fall semester is expected to be presented at a school board meeting in June.

MCPS officials have said since March that they are “planning” for a “more typical” school year beginning in the fall. But the lack of specifics have driven concerns that the district would continue to rely on virtual options, or models that include teachers working remotely.

Virtual academy interest

About 18,000 people responded to a survey MCPS administered in recent months to gauge the level of interest in the virtual academy, according to Chief of Engagement Innovation and Operations Derek Turner.

Roughly 20% of people who respond to the survey said they were interested in the virtual option, Turner said. But data from other districts with a virtual option show that closer to 10% of students register.

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 meet to be accepted into the fully virtual model. Associate Superintendent Peter Cevenini said the district will meet with “every single person who applies” to examine whether it is a good fit.

School-based vaccinations

During Tuesday’s school board meeting, MCPS Associate Superintendent James Koutsos said that, in alignment with county COVID-19 guidelines, face coverings will not be required at outdoor graduations for people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Graduation ceremonies are scheduled to begin June 2 and run through June 17.

“We ask that people be respectful of those who choose to wear masks and of those who are not required to wear them,” Koutsos said.

MCPS staff members said that 662 children ages 12 to 17 were vaccinated at a clinic at Argyle Middle School last week. In total, about 770 vaccines were administered.

A second school-based clinic is scheduled for Wednesday at Paint Branch High School.

Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, wrote in a message to Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that 39,143 children ages 12 to 17 in the county have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. There are about 86,000 eligible children of the same age in the county.

MCPS is planning for a third clinic in partnership with the county Department of Health in the upcounty area on June 2. The district is also considering having vaccination sites permanently stationed in some schools throughout the summer. Potential locations were not disclosed during Tuesday’s meeting.

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