2022 | Schools

MCPS absences surge as COVID-19 cases, other problems mount

Up to 14% of students have missed class in a day in recent weeks

share this

In recent days, Montgomery County Public Schools’ student absence rate has surged, with up to 14% of students out of class in a day. The number of COVID-19 cases has risen and some parents have questioned the safety of sending their children into crowded buildings.

On top of that, some students have reported attending unsupervised classes, or having many classes combined because of a staffing shortage. That adds to parents’ concerns about safety, leading even more to keep their children home.

Even more families reported not being able to get their children to school after their bus routes were canceled last-minute due to a shortage of drivers.

But, unless they have a positive COVID-19 test or instructions to quarantine from the school district because they were in close contact with someone who tested positive, students who stay home do not have access to live classes.

So, potentially hundreds of children have or will go without instruction as their families weigh the risk of attending school versus staying home.

On a typical day, MCPS generally reports between 4% and 7% of its students absent, according to district spokesman Chris Cram. On Dec. 16, about 5% of students were absent across MCPS, according to data provided by the district. On Dec. 17, the rate jumped to 9.4%.

The rate increased in the days leading up to winter break.

On Dec. 21, about 10.3% of students did not report to school, and 14.4% did not show up on Dec. 22.

On Jan. 5, the first day back from winter break, 13% of the district’s students — nearly 21,000 — were absent from school. The rate for Thursday was not immediately available on Monday. Classes were canceled on Friday due to snow.

Joanna Snyder, mother of a first-grade student in Silver Spring, said she kept her daughter home before schools reopened after winter break, concerned about the spread of the virus and the risk of contracting it. She said she also has an unvaccinated 4-year-old in the home and a medically fragile family member.

Snyder decided again this week to keep her daughter at home — a decision she said is only feasible because her work is flexible and remote, and because her daughter does not struggle in school.

Her daughter is not receiving any live instruction, but has been given some materials from her teacher to do on her own time.

To feel safer returning, Snyder said, she’s pushing the district to implement a more robust version of the test-to-stay program for all students with more authentic contact tracing, and a more robust plan for safe breakfast and lunch times when students are most likely to remove their masks.

She also wants MCPS to be more transparent about the number of cases reported at each school — an effort she feels was hindered when the district stopped, after two days, posting the percentage of students and staff members at each school that had tested positive in the past two weeks.

“Right now, there’s one option and you’re forcing families to pull their child and not have anything, or to do their best and send their kids back in, but have to really worry,” Snyder said Monday.

Before the school year started, MCPS opened enrollment for its all-virtual school option. That was before the delta or omicron variants surfaced.

Montgomery County’s case rate at the time was about eight per 100,000 people compared to 1,930 per 100,000 people now. The percentage of hospital beds being used by COVID-19 patients was 1%, compared to roughly 33% on Monday.

The school board appointed two new administrators to oversee its implementation, and about 3,200 students across the county opted in.

But as the COVID-19 landscape changed, district leaders have declined to reopen enrollment, citing staffing constraints.

In a text message on Monday afternoon, Cram wrote: “The staffing currently matches enrollment in the [virtual academy] so for increased access to that option the system would need to adjust resources. How does that affect other schools then becomes the question. There is no news at this hour about any changes.”

Many parents have pleaded for the option as an alternative to reverting the entire district to virtual classes.

But some are also pushing for MCPS to consider a short-term shift to virtual classes to address the mountain of problems it’s facing — bus shortages, staffing problems, high COVID-19 rates, troubles accessing tests and an erosion of trust in the community — and “come back stronger.”

About 15,000 people have signed an online petition, started by Walt Whitman High School student Zoe Cantor, calling for a districtwide pivot to online classes.

“This way of pushing forward, as if you can just double down on this model and just make it work in a pandemic, is going to delay bringing stability to the district,” Snyder said.

Kea Anderson, the PTA president and NAACP Parents Council representative for New Hampshire Estates and Oak View elementary schools, agreed.

Both school communities are in high-poverty communities (89% of students at New Hampshire Estates are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, which MCPS uses as an indicator of poverty), where the impacts of virtual classes last school year were most profound.

But they also often have people in higher-risk categories for COVID-19 complications living in their homes. Now, they feel they’ve been tasked with weighing academic progress against their family’s health and safety.

“It’s an impossible decision,” Anderson said. “These students who fall between quarantine learning and virtual academy and in-person are just getting lost.”

She, too, said the families she’s spoken with think a two-week virtual learning “reset” would be beneficial because finding a solution, while navigating many other problems, will take time.

“I don’t think it’s a problem that nobody wants to solve,” she said. “It’s just a problem that needs to be addressed very urgently and with intention.”

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