Montgomery County Public Schools officials on Friday sent the district’s three employee unions a required 45-day notice that begins the formal planning process for reopening school buildings to at least some students.
In recent months, the teachers union, Montgomery County Education Association, signed an agreement with MCPS requiring the school district to notify it at least 45 days before reopening schools.
Friday’s notification will begin formal conversations and bargaining, and will focus on the possibility of bringing small groups of the school district’s highest-needs students back, according to union President Chris Lloyd. The school district is not yet considering bringing all students back into buildings for a hybrid of in-person and remote classes, Lloyd said.
In an interview on Friday night, Lloyd emphasized that the notice does not mean that students will definitively return to schools in roughly six weeks. Rather, he said, it signals the district wants to work collaboratively with the unions to plan for when it is safe.
“MCPS has been really clear that this will all be more effective if we are working on it together, and they want to include us from the start,” Lloyd said. “It doesn’t have to be this way — they could do all the planning, then say, ‘Hey, we’re ready to bring kids back. Let’s bargain now.’ ”
The notice, signed by Associate Superintendent Sherwin Collette, cited recent statements from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan pressuring school districts across the state to provide at least some in-person instruction as part of the reason the district issued the notice.
MCPS’ approximately 163,000 students have begun the 2020-21 academic year with only virtual instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic. School district leaders have said students will continue learning from home through the first semester, which ends in late January.
During his August speech, Hogan said such plans are “simply not acceptable.”
In recent weeks, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith has said it’s possible if health conditions improve dramatically that students could return to buildings part-time earlier. He has also said the district is working with the county health department to find ways for small groups of students in special education programs and who are English language learners to receive in-person instruction.
In an interview on Thursday, district spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said the school board will receive an update about MCPS’ planning for possible small groups of students to return at its next meeting, which begins at 11 a.m. Oct. 6.
Onijala said MCPS is working with the county health department and Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles to ensure it is safe if students and staff members return. But, she said, there are also logistical challenges to work through, like how to provide safe transportation to students who need it and staffing.
“Everything we do will be based on health metrics and safety guidelines given to us,” Onijala said. “There are so many things to work through and that’s what we’re doing now.”
MCPS has received criticism from some community members frustrated that the district is allowing private child care providers to use school buildings to provide services while students learn remotely.
During a school board meeting this month, MCPS staff members said private child care services are being provided at 63 schools. At each school, the providers are using between one and four classrooms, and state guidelines have limited enrollment to 13 children per class.
Staff members said it is “very different” to have small groups of children in a handful of classrooms compared to opening schools for a hybrid model.
Associate Superintendent Niki Hazel said the district wants to “use diagnostic data to guide decisions about who to bring back” into school buildings first.
In alignment with state requirements, over the next several weeks, MCPS is providing diagnostic testing to all students.
Hazel said MCPS is considering providing services for early childhood education programs, English language learners, high school seniors at risk of not graduating, students with social or emotional needs, career and technology programs, English language learners, and students in special education programs.
In a recent interview, school board member Pat O’Neill said she is “very, very worried” about the school district’s achievement gap widening while children learn from home.
“I’m worried that when we get to the other side of the COVID mountain that we won’t just have a gap, that it’ll be like the Grand Canyon,” O’Neill said. “I’m worried about our most at-risk kids, but the reality is that every student is losing out on something this year.”
O’Neill said she is eager to get students back into school buildings, but “we’re interested in finding ways to do what we can for our students, while also keeping everyone’s health at the very forefront of the conversation.”
“Many people are in a rush to get us back into in-person instruction, but the worst scenario would be to just fling the doors open and have a huge surge (of COVID-19 cases) in Montgomery County and have to retreat back to all virtual,” O’Neill said. “We have to plan it very carefully and always be mindful of health and safety.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org