2020 | Schools

MCPS delays finalizing reopening plan to re-examine metrics, phasing

Preference survey deadline extended to Monday

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The Montgomery County Board of Education meets virtually on Thursday.

Screenshot via livestream

In an unexpected move, the Montgomery County Board of Education on Thursday delayed approving its school reopening plan, directing district leaders to re-evaluate the benchmarks they have set for reopening.

In a unanimous vote after a lengthy discussion, the school board said it could not yet make a decision about the reopening plan because it needs more information about conflicting local, state and federal guidance.

School board Vice President Karla Silvestre highlighted recent comments made by federal health officials, who have said schools are the safest place for children and that they have not recommended closures.

“I just think that we need to slow down a bit and see where the dust settles. If national leaders say kids are safest in schools, are they going to adjust the CDC guidelines so schools can act on that premise?,” Silvestre said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

She and other board members directed MCPS leaders to “take a second look” at the metrics it has set to guide when students can return to classrooms.

MCPS has received strong pushback from community members who feel the metrics are too strict, but the district has repeated that it is following state and federal guidelines, customized to fit conditions in Montgomery County, like its large, urban population.

The phased return to MCPS buildings, as outlined in the current draft plan, will be based upon two key health metrics: the county’s average daily increase in cases over 14 days, and the two-week average of cases per 100,000 people.

The MCPS guidelines also require the county’s test positivity rate to remain below 5%.

As of Thursday, the county was averaging 28.1 cases per 100,000 people and had a positivity rate above 5%. Both measures, if reopening were being considered today, would mandate no in-person learning for any students, according to MCPS’ reopening matrix.

“If (a case rate per 100,000 people) under 15 is what (the state and federal government) are recommending, could we be a little more aggressive in bringing kids back sooner?” Silvestre asked.

Board member Rebecca Smondrowski shared similar sentiments, and asked if there were any penalties, like a reduction in state funding, if the district were to allow children back into schools at a rate higher than 15 per 100,000.

Superintendent Jack Smith said there is not, but cautioned that other districts that have used more lenient metrics have had to close their buildings again shortly after reopening due to widespread transmission of the virus.

Board member Pat O’Neill said she understands the varying opinions about reopening, but that “people are going to find the data to support whatever they believe, reopening or closing.”

“I think we have to wade out into that water and get children whose parents want them in school, in school,” she said.

Board members also asked MCPS to reconsider how it has structured the phasing for a return to buildings. They said there should, potentially, be a stronger emphasis on getting the district’s youngest students back into a hybrid model because they are the most at-risk of learning loss or not developing critical academic skills while learning from home.

As of Thursday, the parents and guardians of 108,067 students had responded to a questionnaire that asked parents to choose whether their children will return to schools when they reopen.

About 50.5% (54,573) have chosen the hybrid mix of virtual and in-person learning, and 49.5% (53,493) opted for all-virtual, a roughly 50/50 split among those who have responded.

So, as of Thursday, about 34% of MCPS students plan to return to buildings if they reopen in the second semester.

But there were also about 52,000 students whose families did not respond to the form, and, if responses are not received, they will automatically be enrolled in the all-virtual model.

The deadline to respond to the survey was extended from Thursday of this week to Monday of next week.

For families who choose to participate in face-to-face instruction, they will have a second chance to opt out.

Over the next few weeks, MCPS will build its plan for in-person learning, including how many schools will open and how often students will learn from home.

The district will share its plan with families the first week of January. Then, from Jan. 11 to 15, families will confirm if they still want to return to buildings.

No changes to families’ selections can be made between Jan. 18 and 29, MCPS staff members said, so staff members can finalize plans.

Small groups of the district’s “highest-risk” students, like those in special education programs and English language learners,” are scheduled to begin a phased return to buildings Jan. 12. General education students will follow, beginning Feb. 1, according to the district’s current plan.

Students will be split into phases based on grade level, and more students will be brought back as COVID-19 data improve.

MCPS is also considering contracting with other agencies to hire more school nurses as students come back to schools. The district is seeking more information from state officials about situations in which it can provide COVID-19 tests to students and staff members.

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