2021 | Schools

MCPS develops new plan for instruction during elementary quarantine

District aims to ease pressure on teachers amid staffing shortage

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Maryland’s largest school district on Tuesday announced a new centralized approach to providing live instruction when elementary students are required to quarantine, an effort largely designed to ease the burden caused by significant staffing shortages.

At the beginning of the academic year, Montgomery County Public Schools committed to provide some live instruction to its youngest students when they have to miss in-person classes due to exposure to COVID-19. For the first few weeks, each individual elementary school was tasked with finding teachers who could provide instruction over Zoom during their planning periods.

But the approach put too much strain on teachers, MCPS officials said on Tuesday, so the district has launched a new approach that allows elementary schools to opt in to a regional, centralized program. The program will use a rotation of staff members from all participating schools, so they are sacrificing planning periods less frequently.

The regional model was launched on Friday, according to Sarah Sirgo, the district’s director of learning, achievement and administration. Sirgo said 63 elementary schools (about 45%) have opted in.

Participation is optional, and some schools have chosen to continue coordinating their own quarantine instruction, Sirgo said. The district has also developed a “quarantine pacing guide” to ensure instruction provided during quarantine aligns with what is being taught in classrooms.

At the beginning of the meeting, during a public comment period, the presidents of MCPS’ three employee unions sounded an alarm about the district’s staffing shortage and its effect on employees.

Christine Handy, president of the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals, said employees are spread too thin and are being asked to do “an unsustainable amount of work.” Usually, the employees are asked to take on additional responsibilities outside of their job description, she said.

“These are human beings, not robots without limits,” Handy said.

Pia Morrison, president of Service Employees International Union Local 500, said the district has “demanded more than we can deliver … without a significant increase in resources and staffing.” She called on the Board of Education to bargain with the unions to increase the hours of employment for part-time staff, provide new incentives to attract educators and compensate educators who miss planning time to complete other duties.

Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said the staffing shortage is “very true.”

A school district spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for data about how many employee vacancies there are in the district. WUSA reported on Monday that MCPS had a shortage of about 240 teachers and 60 classroom support positions.

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