This story was updated at 4:50 p.m. Dec. 15, 2020, to include information about the reopening plan presented during a virtual press conference following the school board meeting.
The Montgomery County Board of Education on Tuesday finalized its plan to reopen schools in the new year.
The board chose to revise the phases by which students will return, bringing more back at once, but it delayed the earliest date that buildings could reopen from Jan. 12 to Feb. 1.
In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, school board members voted to keep the threshold they set for when students will be allowed to return to buildings for in-person classes: a less than 5% coronavirus test positivity rate and a maximum of 15 cases per 100,000 Montgomery County residents.
But the board opted to revise the phasing for students’ return.
Under the new guidelines, no students will be in buildings for traditional classes if the case rate per 100,000 residents is higher than 15 or the test positivity rate is 5% or higher.
But if countywide data are lower than those benchmarks, some students — those in special education programs, pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade, high school seniors and those in certain career and technical education programs — who chose to participate in face-to-face classes will be welcomed back to schools.
Then, when the county hits a threshold of 5 to 10 cases per 100,000 (given the test positivity rate remains below 5%), the rest of the students who opted for in-person classes would be allowed to return to buildings.
In the original guidelines, students would have been brought back in several smaller phases, starting only with students in special education programs and other specific programs.
MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith said district officials did not feel comfortable loosening the thresholds used to guide reopening, but state and federal health leaders feel the accelerated return of students is doable when the existing metrics are met.
Compared to the old guidelines, the new benchmarks seem to grant more leeway to reopen by no longer requiring the case rate to drop below 5 per 100,000 for the final group of students to come back to buildings.
Asked about that during a press conference following the school board meeting, MCPS Chief of Engagement, Innovation and Operations Derek Turner said people read too much into the former guidelines.
“There were plenty of opportunities for consideration and potential transition to (in-person). … We just had more flexible language, as we didn’t have the science and data we do now,” Turner said. “Now, we can be a little more aggressive knowing what we know now.”
During Tuesday’s school board meeting, Smith said the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine and more community members’ immunity “gives me hope” schools could reopen completely sooner than previously expected.
The earliest that schools will reopen is Feb. 1. The school board will meet on Jan. 12 to review data and determine if the Feb. 1 reopening is feasible.
“That’s the best we can do at this moment,” board member Pat O’Neill said. “The numbers are dramatically increasing in Montgomery County … We can’t turn on a dime and say tomorrow we’re going (back to schools).”
MCPS used a survey to prompt families to choose whether to return to buildings when they reopen.
Responses were submitted on behalf of 127,112 MCPS students. About 50.2% of those who responded chose to continue with virtual-only classes, while 49.8% chose to return to schools.
The 38,513 students for whom responses were not submitted were automatically enrolled in the all-virtual model.
Of the people who responded to the survey and chose the partial in-person model:
● 29,461 were elementary students
● 14,763 were middle school students
● 18,845 were high school students
● 172 were students who attend special program schools
● 52 were students currently enrolled in home school
The data show that white and Asian students were most commonly enrolled in the hybrid model. Minority students at Title I and Focus schools, generally with larger concentrations of students in poverty, mostly chose to remain in an all-virtual model, according to the data.
Two board members, Brenda Wolff and O’Neill, said they believe there is likely a correlation between families who chose to remain in a fully virtual model and those who live in areas more severely affected by the pandemic.
Survey results by ZIP code were not available Tuesday.
For the nearly 100,000 students who will remain in a virtual-only model, Smith said during the press conference that MCPS will continue to update and improve online classes.
“We are committed to having an all-virtual program for the foreseeable future going forward,” Smith said. “… We’re going to continue to improve it, upgrade it, change it.”
He said moving forward that MCPS will examine how it schedules courses, manages course registration, and the development and implementation of curriculum. Taking virtual classes, he said, can be very different than taking the same class in-person.
“Some students feel like they’re not getting enough and some students feel like they’re getting too much,” smith said. “So (staff) are thinking about how we create that in a virtual world so it’s more balanced and suited to the individual student. That will be a significant and ongoing part of the work.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com