Two months before the start of the 2020-21 academic year, MCPS staff members on Monday discussed several options about how often, if at all, students will return to school buildings in the fall.
Undoubtedly, school will look different when classes resume on Aug. 31, but MCPS has not yet determined what, exactly, families can expect.
During Monday evening’s school board meeting, however, MCPS staff members gave the first glimpse at what they’re considering, including full-time remote learning, a hybrid of in-person and remote classes, and the possibility of toggling between the two, depending on health conditions.
In the hybrid model, some students would attend in-person classes while others learned from home, switching day-to-day.
There was no discussion about students returning to schools full-time. School officials say it is “most likely there will not be a full reopening” on the first day of school.
In late July and early August, some students taking summer classes will return to schools, according to MCPS Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instructional Programs Niki Hazel.
That will act as a trial for the school district to “gain a better understanding of what we need to learn as we prepare to return to schools in the fall,” Hazel said.
MCPS staff members on Monday showed school board members recorded demonstrations of social distancing measures that would be in place if students returned to school buildings right away. The measures were based on the current strength of the pandemic locally and social distancing restrictions in place by county and state health officials.
Included were visuals about new spacing requirements on school buses, restrictions on sharing materials and taped markers in elementary school hallways to remind young children to stay six feet apart — with a class of 15 spread along an entire hallway.
Desks were boxed in by taped boundaries on the floor to create visual social distancing boundaries for children.
“Seeing those videos really makes you wonder how this is going to work,” school board member Rebecca Smondrowski said, becoming emotional. “So many parents want us to get back into full gear. I want that for our kids and I want that for our families, but I don’t know how that will work seeing the videos we just saw.”
Board member Jeanette Dixon said MCPS is doing its best for children and families academically, emotionally and for health, but “I do think it’s time to send up some prayers, as well, that we can turn the corner with (COVID-19).”
Janet Wilson, MCPS’ chief of teaching, learning and schools, said staff members are conducting “capacity analyses” of schools to determine how layouts can be modified to accommodate socially distanced learning and how many students can be in the building at once.
Face masks will likely be required and students won’t be able to share crayons and markers. Teachers will be trained about new procedures, Wilson said.
If there is a diagnosed case of COVID-19 at a school or a local outbreak, individual schools, groups of schools or the entire district might have to shift to fully remote learning, based on guidance from the county Department of Health and Human Services.
“We have to be prepared to respond to shifts in the guidance and to provide a fluid and comprehensive learning opportunity to students,” Wilson said.
Regardless of the districtwide plan chosen for the beginning of fall classes, MCPS teachers and students can continue classes from home with no in-person teaching.
During a meeting of the Maryland Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday morning, Superintendent Jack Smith reiterated that online classes will be available to “anyone who wants it” and it is not the school district’s business to judge a family’s decision to opt for remote learning.
MCPS leaders said online learning during the 2020-21 school year will be more rigorous than the spring, and families should expect full days of instruction. For more consistency, teachers will use one universal virtual platform to work with students, rather than having a variety of methods.
Some parents criticized MCPS this year for distance learning that only lasted a few hours each day. They said the lack of rigor caused children to fall behind, missing instruction they would have received in person.
MCPS has repeatedly said that when school buildings were closed in March, it was an “emergency response.” Immediate emphasis was placed on distributing laptops and internet devices to students who did not have access at home, and providing meals to families who relied on the school district for their children’s breakfast, lunch and dinner.
MCPS loaned out more than 70,000 Chromebooks and has provided more than 3 million free meals to children.
In mid-June, MCPS released a survey to community members to solicit feedback about fall learning. On Monday, MCPS said nearly 30,000 people have responded, and the responses can be categorized by ZIP code so “we have a finger on the pulse of different communities.” Staff did not disclose preliminary results of the survey, but said another survey is expected to be released in July.
The school board is expected to receive a more detailed briefing about fall classes at its July 14 meeting.
During the weeks of July 27, Aug. 3 and Aug. 10, small groups of students in summer courses will be welcomed back into school buildings, which will “indicate for us how well that model works for planning in the fall,” district leaders said.
The groups will be chosen based on school building availability, programs offered and the interest of administrators, teachers and parents to participate.
Some schools might only test the concept for one week, while others might have students in classrooms all three weeks, Hazel said.
More than 650 summer programs are being offered to MCPS students, Hazel said, including math and English classes and other “enrichment” programs like music, coding, comics and yoga.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org