Students will have wear masks if MCPS reopens in the fall

MCPS says ‘massive undertaking’ underway in overhaul to fall classes

Officials give tour of elementary school to demonstrate possible social distancing measures

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MCPS staff members demonstrate how classrooms might be arranged to promote social distancing if school buildings reopen in the fall.

Photos by Caitlynn Peetz

If Montgomery County Public Schools opts to have students in school buildings in the fall, families can expect their children will be required to wear masks, buses to operate at 25% capacity and classrooms to be half full to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

On Thursday, less than one week before the school board will discuss fall plans, MCPS leaders gave members of the media a tour of College Gardens Elementary School in Rockville, demonstrating what measures might be in place if students return to buildings when classes resume Aug. 31.

MCPS has not yet announced its official plans for fall classes.

“It’s absolutely just a massive undertaking to rethink and re-envision all of our school operations, particularly in a district this size,” said MCPS Associate Superintendent for Operations Essie McGuire. “We’re a small city. When you really map everything to the scale we have in MCPS, it’s a lot.”

On school buses, students would sit in every other seat, aligning with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, unless they were sitting with their siblings. That would mean MCPS’ fleet of more than 1,300 buses would operate at about 25% capacity, a severe logistical challenge for a school district that last year transported approximately 100,000 of its 166,000 students on buses each day.

McGuire said officials are still determining how to accommodate students who rely on the school system for transportation. But she said there have been conversations about increasing the number of routes each bus takes, staggering arrival times or changing who is eligible to ride the bus. Currently, students who live within a defined radius of their school are considered in the “walk zone” and are not allowed to ride school buses.

MCPS staff members demonstrate new spacing requirements on school buses.

Asked if MCPS might purchase more buses, McGuire said it “is not our plan at this time.”

“We really want to start by just getting information from our community (about who plans to use MCPS transportation), then we’ll just need to tailor what services we can provide to the information we receive,” McGuire said. “A lot of these questions we’re going to have to answer as we build out going forward. … We’re going to need to work with the resources we have.”

When students arrive at school, there would be markings on the ground outside and inside of the building, and posters and decals in hallways and classrooms to remind children to remain 6 feet apart. Hand sanitizer stations would be throughout the school, and students and staff members would be asked “health screening questions” upon arrival.

Classrooms, typically able to hold around 25 students, would operate at half-capacity, with desks spaced further apart. In a kindergarten classroom shown during the tour, 6-foot-long desks were marked with an “X” on either end where students could sit.

If students don’t have masks, each school would have some available, McGuire said. She declined to comment when asked what the estimated financial impact of COVID-19 has been or is expected to be on MCPS.

Students would eat lunch in their classrooms to avoid congregating in cafeterias and common areas.

Throughout school facilities and outside buildings, there would be signage and markings on the floors to promote social distancing.

MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said school district leaders know it’s not realistic to expect students, especially the youngest children, to understand and comply with social distancing measures at all times.

The goal, Onijala said, is to minimize the risk of exposure, but “there’s never a total risk elimination.”

“Children are children. They want to play with each other, they want to have conversations,” Onijala said. “Our staff will need to remind, encourage and try as much as possible to enforce, but we know it’s not physically possible to ensure that for every minute of the day that they’re in a school building, they’ll commit to wearing their mask. But there will be people there who will lovingly remind them that by doing so, you’re protecting your classmates, you’re protecting your teachers and its importance.”

McGuire said MCPS acknowledges it would be a “difficult environment,” but “we’ll work through it all together.”

Many questions remain as MCPS works to finalize its fall plan.

Asked if there has been any effort to recruit more substitute teachers to fill in for staff members who become sick or need to quarantine, McGuire said, “We’re going to continue to work out the staffing that we need for this environment.”

Protocols are being developed for how MCPS would handle a student who was exhibiting symptoms during the school day and didn’t have transportation home. Onijala said, however, that health rooms will be available for use.

The Montgomery County school board will receive a briefing on Tuesday from MCPS staff members about plans for fall classes.

Taped boundaries would be placed around desks to help students visualize how to maintain distance in the classroom.

During a meeting last month, MCPS said it was considering three options for fall classes: full-time remote learning, a hybrid of in-person and remote classes, and the possibility of toggling between the two, depending on health conditions.

There was no discussion about all students returning to school buildings full-time.

This week, federal officials, including President Donald Trump, have put increasing pressure on school systems to reopen in the fall, threatening to withhold federal funding if they don’t.

During a media briefing on Wednesday, Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said, “It’s reckless to come through with mandates that aren’t informed by data and science.”

“We simply don’t have all the information we need yet to say we’re going to mandate and require facilities to be open,” Gayles said. “… I’m hopeful we’ll be able to have a national conversation about what’s safe, but I’m confident that at the Maryland state level and local level in Montgomery County, we are looking at the facts and the data to determine what’s safe to move forward.”

Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of Montgomery County’s Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, added: “To be clear, safety is going to drive what happens in the fall, not political rhetoric.”

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

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