After prodding from state leaders, Montgomery County Public Schools will soon present a new reopening plan that aims to bring “very small” groups of students back into schools by the end of February, Superintendent Jack Smith said on Thursday.
At a press conference last week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan pressured districts across the state to begin providing in-person classes by March 1, or risk repercussions.
MCPS, however, recently approved a reopening plan that wasn’t set to begin until March 15.
“We certainly listen to what our governor says,” Smith said, “… but we also know ultimately the decision (to reopen) rests with the Board of Education.”
Still, during a school board meeting on Thursday, Smith said staff members will present a new plan on Feb. 9 to bring some students back sooner.
Students in some special education programs and some career and technology education programs could be included, Smith said. Staff members hope those “very small” groups could return to schools by the end of February or early March.
Then, on Feb. 23, MCPS employees will recommend whether the full reopening plan, which includes a phased return to buildings, can begin as expected on March 15.
MCPS has delayed its reopening three times.
MCPS’ 208 schools have been closed for normal classes since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some schools across the state, including many local private schools, have returned to buildings at least part-time, but classes for the 160,000 students in MCPS have remained fully virtual.
Calendar and communication
Also on Feb. 23, staff members will discuss possible changes to the academic calendar, including potential changes to spring break, which is scheduled for March 29 through April 5.
School board member Pat O’Neill raised a concern about the timing of spring break falling shortly after students are expected to return to schools. It could prove difficult to maintain “consistency” and “continuity” in learning, she said.
Several school board members pushed the district to provide clearer and more consistent messages to families about reopening plans, safety protocols and teaching plans.
Some schools have begun detailing plans to families, while others haven’t. Smith said schools will “swing into full communication mode” following the Feb. 9 school board meeting to share more information with their communities.
Those plans will include what instruction will look like. That could include typical, live instruction or educators teaching both live and virtual classes simultaneously from their classroom. It also could include a “support” model, in which students are in schools but take their classes via their laptops and receive help from teachers or other employees, as needed.
Schools ‘will look very different’
When buildings reopen, students will do a daily health screening, and face coverings will be required. There will be staggered pick-up and drop-off times, and some schools will have multiple entrances and exits.
Schools will have signage to remind students to maintain distance between each other, and some hallways may be one-way to prevent large gatherings.
“Socialization is going to look very different,” Associate Superintendent Essie McGuire said. “It will feel and look a little different.”
The district will also not permit the public to go into schools as freely as before, Smith added, to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
He said he expects a return to more normal operations by the fall.
“I fully expect and absolutely believe school will open as it typically has in August or early September,” Smith said.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org