This story was updated at 9:25 a.m. on Nov. 7, 2020, to correct a reference to reopening metrics.
Montgomery County Public Schools plans to begin phasing students back into buildings for some in-person instruction in January, staff members said Friday.
MCPS began its school year fully virtually in August due to the coronavirus pandemic. For months, as some parents clamor for an immediate end to online classes, the school district has been planning how and when to bring students back to schools.
During a work session on Friday, the school board agreed that the district’s most at-risk students could begin to return on Jan. 12, as long as COVID-19 health metrics show it is safe.
The district would not bring back all students for at least some face-to-face classes until February at the earliest, nearly a year after buildings closed on March 16.
If the pandemic worsens, Superintendent Jack Smith said, the plans could change.
“We certainly know that the metrics over the last few weeks have not been as positive as we would like for them to have been … but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to continue to plan and work and move forward with our goal,” Smith said. “And our hope is that we can begin to bring students back into the physical spaces that we all think of as school.”
Students will be split into four different groups for a phased return to buildings.
The first group, which would return Jan. 12, would include 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, freshmen, and students in career and technical education programs.
The second group would include pre-kindergarten, second grade, third grade, seventh grade and sophomores.
The third group would include fourth grade, fifth grade, eighth grade, juniors and seniors.
Parents will be asked to fill out a survey to indicate whether they want their child to participate in in-person learning.
Families who opt for the hybrid model will be allowed to change to fully virtual instruction at any time. But families who initially choose virtual-only instruction will only be able to change to the hybrid model later if there is space in schools to do so.
The survey will be available between Nov. 11 and Dec. 3. Responses from families will help determine which schools will be open and flesh out transportation options.
It is possible that not all schools would reopen. MCPS staff members said they will determine how many schools need to open based on how many students want to participate in the hybrid model.
MCPS said neighboring school districts have either opted to open every school, open specific locations based on demand or use a regional hub model.
The phased return to schools would be based upon two health metrics: the county’s average daily increase in cases over 14 days, and the two-week average of cases per 100,000 people.
For MCPS to consider returning small groups of students to school buildings, the district wants to see no more than 10 to 15 new cases per 100,000 people in Montgomery County, then between five and 10 cases to expand to include the next group of students.
For the rest of the groups, MCPS would want to see fewer than five cases per 100,000 residents.
MCPS will also consider the 14-day average of new cases per day.
If there are more than 140 new cases for two weeks, MCPS would only consider small-group instruction for students in the special populations group. Between 70 and 140 new cases would allow in-person instruction for the next group.
MCPS is looking for no more than 70 cases on average to allow all students to return for a hybrid model of instruction.
Montgomery County’s case rate per 100,000 was 14.8 as of Friday, and the county has reported more than 100 new cases per day for more than two weeks.
When buildings reopen, face coverings will be required and there will be daily health symptom questionnaires for staff and students.
On Nov. 11, the school district will launch a “COVID-19 employee portal.” It will include training and safety resources for staff members.
It also will have information about how to apply for accommodations or a leave of absence “aligned with state and federal law and CDC guidelines” for staff members who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 if they return to schools.
MCPS will provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for all staff members. It will be replenished quarterly, according to district officials.
The PPE will include cloth masks for teachers and students, disposable masks, hand sanitizer in each classroom and other areas of the school and sanitizing wipes. Gloves, face shields, goggles, gowns and shoe covers will be provided to special education programs “as necessary,” according to MCPS
Portable air cleansers will supplement ventilation and filtration in some classrooms. MCPS officials said they have completed an evaluation of all filtration and ventilation components in every school.
On school buses, students will sit in every other seat, in line with recommendations from the CDC.
School buses will operate at about 50% of their normal capacity, which could limit the school district’s ability to provide transportation to students at all grade levels.
Each day, every school bus will be disinfected with “high-power cleaners.” Staff members will disinfect high-touch areas of the bus between each load of students. Hand sanitizer will be available for the staff, and students and everyone will be required to wear face coverings while on the bus.
MCPS Associate Superintendent of Operations Essie McGuire said the district will “absolutely not be in a rationing situation” when it comes to the distribution of PPE.
“We certainly know many individuals will bring their own face coverings because they like them, and that was fine, but we will absolutely have those available to distribute to everyone who comes into the building,” McGuire said. “That is a non-negotiable.”
According to MCPS, 115 employees have reported testing positive for COVID-19. Twenty-five employees are currently quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org