Montgomery County Public Schools’ Superintendent Jack Smith on Wednesday said district officials “absolutely will” notify families if their children are exposed to COVID-19 when school buildings reopen.
Smith, speaking during his first media briefing since the coronavirus pandemic began in early March, said it will be a “necessity” that families receive prompt notification about possible infections in their child’s school. However, MCPS officials are still determining how to do so while complying with student and health privacy laws, he said.
On Saturday, MCPS released its preliminary plan for the fall semester, which shows a fully remote instruction model to begin the academic year on Aug. 31. The plan shows a gradual phased approach to bringing students back to schools, with the last group in their desks by late November, if health conditions allow. It does not say when students would begin their return to schools.
During the press briefing on Wednesday, Smith said schools will only reopen when — “I’ll even say if” — it is determined safe by health officials.
During a separate press briefing later on Wednesday, Montgomery County Chief Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said, “We are moving in all of those right directions” for school reopenings, but we “have more work to do.”
Gayles said he would like to see “significant improvements in the load of the virus in our community.” He said that includes “minimal” cases and evidence of widespread community transmission and increased access to testing.
“The reality is, when we reopen things more, we increase contact points, whether we’re talking about kids or adults,” Gayles said. “We want to make sure we’ve driven the burden of the virus down to a much smaller number that alleviates or has a low probability or risk of it being transmitted from person to person within our communities.”
As MCPS builds out its fall plan, including the possibility of face-to-face instruction, some parents and teachers have questioned whether the risk of infection and further spread of the virus throughout the community is worth taking.
Asked on Wednesday what the appropriate balance is between students receiving in-person instruction and the risk of COVID-19 transmission, Smith said, “There’s not an answer to that question.”
He said people take risks every day, by deciding to go to the grocery store or the post office, for example, and will need to decide individually if in-person instruction is right for their family.
Smith said he questions the credibility of anybody claiming to “absolutely know” the right answer on whether schools should reopen full-time or lessons should be conducted completely virtually.
“What is appropriate is that we work with health professionals and we make a determination about what is acceptable and appropriate,” Smith said. “What we have to think about is as we live our lives, what makes the most sense. … Rather than saying what is an acceptable level of risk for schools, we need to talk about what do health professionals say, what does the evolving research say and what is right for each individual circumstance.”
Montgomery County is in the second phase of reopening. It has recorded about 16,000 cases of the coronavirus and more than 700 deaths.
During a school board meeting on Tuesday, the results of surveys about the fall plan were released, showing that 42% of parents plan to have their children participate in face-to-face learning.
Another 22% said they plan to have their children in virtual-only lessons and 35% were undecided.
However, only 25% of educators said they’d like to return to school buildings when the 2020-21 academic year begins.
A questionnaire about the plan will be released to staff members July 18 to 26. There will be a “registration period” from July 27 to Aug. 7 for families to indicate whether their children will participate in online-only instruction.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org