For Montgomery County Public Schools’ plan to reopen facilities to materialize this academic year, the district will need more than significantly improved COVID-19 metrics. It will also need more teachers.
MCPS announced on Nov. 6 that it plans to begin a phased return to school buildings in January, but only if the pandemic improves. The announcement came as Montgomery County is in the middle of a new surge of COVID-19 cases, with more than 100 new cases reported each day for the past 27 days. The local test positivity rate has steadily increased, and more pressure is on hospitals as coronavirus patients fill their beds.
With the current data, no MCPS students would be allowed to return to in-person learning, according to MCPS’ metrics.
Still, the school district is planning for the best-case scenario, which would include the case rate per 100,000 residents dropping dramatically over the next two months.
If that were to happen, Superintendent Jack Smith reiterated during a press conference on Monday, MCPS will need more teachers to carry out the hybrid model of in-person and remote learning.
On Monday, during his first press conference since July, Smith said the school district will turn to its pool of substitutes, support staff, community members and retired teachers to help fill any gaps.
“There are a tremendous number of people here with not only high degrees of education and [who] would meet the certification requirements, but with teaching backgrounds, and many people are interested in working in various ways,” Smith said. “And we are working right now to recruit them and talk to them and make sure they’re lined up to do this work as we need them.”
Smith did not say how many more teachers the district might need. Data about how many staff members are currently older than 65 — the threshold set for people with a higher risk of contracting the disease — or with an underlying health condition was not available Monday.
MCPS has also launched an online portal where staff members can “share information with us” about their personal situations, and “it will be handled very individually,” Smith said.
National education leaders have called staffing the “wild card” for school districts’ reopening plans. Many districts with aging educators could struggle to staff buildings, depending on how many students want to return to school buildings.
So far, about 56% of the 34,000 people who have responded to a survey asking parents and guardians to decide what model they want for their children have opted for the hybrid mix of in-person and virtual learning, according to MCPS data. The rest have opted for the fully virtual model for the second semester.
A fully in-person model is not currently an option for MCPS.
Smith also said the district will work with its three employee unions to discuss possible incentives for educators who teach in-person classes.
He did not elaborate.
Chris Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the county’s teachers union, said in an interview that providing incentives, or differential pay, for “front-facing” educators would be fair, considering the county government provides hazard pay to county employees working during the pandemic. “Front-facing” refers to employees who are in contact with the public in person.
MCPS’ reopening plan
The state required MCPS to re-evaluate its plan for the second quarter after State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon and Gov. Larry Hogan criticized districts that committed to a fully virtual model through the first semester.
Asked if MCPS’ new plan for the second semester satisfies that requirement, Smith said yes.
Some have criticized the metrics MCPS is using to guide reopening, calling them too strict and unattainable. But, on Monday, Smith again said “the foundation” for MCPS’ plan is CDC and state guidance.
He pointed to other school districts that have used more lax reopening guidelines and have had to close schools because of COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Several school systems now that tried to use somewhat lower metrics have been closed across the nation, and that disruption is very, very difficult for families, staff, and especially for our students,” Smith said. “… That is not good for anyone.”
For eight months, since March 16, the district’s 161,000 students have been learning via virtual instruction.
MCPS’ new plan calls for a four-step approach for bringing all students back to schools for some face-to-face instruction.
First, beginning Jan. 12, MCPS would focus on students who have struggled the most with online learning. That could include students in special education programs, English language learners and others.
Then, more students would be phased back into buildings in groups, divided by age and special programs.
The first group in the phased return would include kindergarten, first grade, some special education programs, sixth grade, and students in career and technical education programs.
The second group would include pre-kindergarten, second grade, third grade, seventh grade, juniors and seniors.
The third group would include fourth grade, fifth grade, eighth grade, freshmen and sophomores.
When it first unveiled the reopening plan, MCPS had juniors and seniors in the last group to return. But, after receiving feedback from community members, the eldest high school grades were moved into the second group.
The school board will hold a work session about the reopening plan on Tuesday, and will take final action during a meeting on Dec. 3.
Dec. 3 is also the final day families can fill out the preference form for the second semester.
Some families have said it is difficult to make a decision now, two months before any in-person learning would begin, because nobody knows if the pandemic will improve or worsen.
Smith said he understands it is “an incredibly difficult decision to make and there are a tremendous number of unknowns.”
“So we’re asking parents to make this selection now, because the number of students who want to return to in-person instruction or the combination model will help inform the design of the in-person instructional model, the number of school buildings that we can open and how to schedule all of that,” Smith said. “So the information, as we gain it, will help us make decisions.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org