MCPS students will begin school year with online learning

UPDATED: MCPS will not have in-person classes through first semester of academic year

Announcement is a reversal of earlier plans to phase students into schools throughout the fall

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This story was updated at 11:10 p.m. July 21, 2020, to include comments from Chris Lloyd. It was updated again at 10:50 a.m. July 22, 2020, to include comments from Jack Smith and Dr. Travis Gayles from a briefing they held Wednesday morning.

After receiving guidance from the county health department and receiving pushback from educators, Montgomery County Public Schools on Tuesday announced it will not provide face-to-face instruction through the first semester of the 2020-21 academic year.

The announcement signals a reversal of earlier plans that showed the school district would phase students and instruction back into schools part-time throughout the fall.

On July 11, MCPS announced it would begin the year fully online, with a plan to phase students back into buildings gradually. The goal, the draft plan said, was to have all students who chose to participate in face-to-face learning in schools by November.

The plan was met immediately with pushback from teachers who said returning to schools would be a risk to their health and could increase the spread of COVID-19 throughout the community.

Last week, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), the local teachers union representing more than 14,000 teachers, released a statement calling the school district’s proposed plan “wholly inadequate to protect the health and safety of students and staff.”

Four days later, on Tuesday afternoon, MCPS released a community message that said Chief Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles told school officials, “Based upon the current state of surveillance and epidemiological data, I would not recommend in-person instruction for students inside school buildings at this time.”

“[G]iven this updated guidance, the safest choice for our district is to remain in a virtual-only instructional model through the first semester — January 29, 2021; or until state and local health officials determine conditions in our county allow for students to return safely after the first semester,” Superintendent Jack Smith wrote in a message to community members.

Smith wrote that there will be no fall or winter sports as a result.

In his message, Smith wrote that county officials will reassess health conditions at the end of the first quarter, on Nov. 9, to determine if MCPS can begin phasing students into buildings in the second semester, which begins Feb. 1, 2021.

He wrote that MCPS is “seeking the ability to allow buildings to remain open in a limited capacity,” including to provide meals, distribute technology and school materials and for use by some child care providers.

“This decision is incredibly difficult as we know how much students need school for their academic success and social-emotional well-being,” Smith wrote. “We take the immense responsibility of ensuring staff and student safety, educating our students and creating opportunities for all seriously.”

The Board of Education will vote on the plan at its meeting on Aug. 6.

During a news conference on Wednesday morning to discuss the plan, Smith said MCPS is committed to providing a “rigorous, dynamic learning experience for students” with more live instruction from teachers compared to the spring. He said he hopes schools can reopen at the end of January, and he understands that the decision to conduct virtual-only instruction is difficult for some students and families. 

“No one would have chosen this,” Smith said. “No one likes this. There are no good options. They’re difficult, hard options for everyone.” 

During the news conference, Gayles pointed to state and national increases in COVID-19 cases, and particularly an increase in cases among people ages 10 to 19 in Maryland, as reasons he recommended that schools not reopen in the fall. 

Gayles said it is important for community leaders to acknowledge that, even if children are less likely to become seriously ill or die from the coronavirus, they can transmit the virus to their families, teachers and other community members. 

“Simply put, right now, the numbers don’t match up in terms of creating a safe environment for us to feel comfortable for students and staff to be able to execute the education agenda while maintaining their personal and professional safety,” Gayles said.

MCEA President Chris Lloyd said in an interview Tuesday afternoon that, while many teachers are relieved, “it’s really a tough day.” 

The announcement is difficult for educators, who, when schools closed in March, hoped the virus would be contained enough by the fall that they could return to buildings, Lloyd said. But teachers are ready to make the virtual experience a positive one when the school year begins Aug. 31. 

“I think that when Dr. Gayles expresses concerns around the current health conditions in Montgomery County, it’s important we listen to him,” Lloyd said. “I hear from folks saying, ‘Congratulations’ to teachers, but I’m thinking, ‘It’s not a victory.’

“This is not something where we’re excited. This is something where teachers are as conflicted as everyone else, but it allows us now to focus all of our efforts on creating a really solid online learning program for the fall.”  

The superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools on Tuesday, which had originally proposed giving parents a choice between enrolling their children in all-virtual or part-time in-person instruction, also called for no in-person classes to start the school year.

Loudoun County’s school board was set to discuss a similar proposal on Tuesday, according to The Washington Post.

In the MCEA statement on Friday, representatives wrote that, “Masking, social distancing, and enhanced cleaning are the three pillars on which the MCPS plan rests, and it fails in all three areas.”

The night before, during a union meeting, representatives involved in providing feedback on the plan and impact bargaining for the fall semester said MCPS told them the school district would provide two cloth face coverings to each staff member and student to last the entire academic year. MCPS also allegedly told the union it will not install automatic hand sanitizer dispensers at schools or purchase new air filters and higher-grade cleaning supplies for schools.

After the union released its statement, MCPS posted a video to its YouTube channel and social media titled “Just the Facts” disputing some claims. In it, top school district officials addressed “lots of rumors circulating in the community.”

For other topics, the school district addressed them, but did not provide specific answers to what teachers said they were told.

About 42% of parents who responded to a survey administered by the school district in June indicated they would send their children to in-person classes. Another 22% said they plan to have their children in virtual-only lessons and 35% were undecided.

A quarter of MCPS staff members who responded to a similar staff survey said they’d like to return to buildings when the school year begins.

About 22% of the 16,965 staff members who responded said they “were not yet sure about in-person work or working virtually,” while 52% said they would like to have the opportunity to work remotely.

When asked last week about whether schools were safe to reopen, Gayles said, “We are moving in the right directions” but we “have more work to do.”

Gayles said he would like to see “significant improvements in the load of the virus in our community.” He said that includes “minimal” cases and evidence of widespread community transmission and increased access to testing.

“The reality is, when we reopen things more, we increase contact points, whether we’re talking about kids or adults,” Gayles said last week. “We want to make sure we’ve driven the burden of the virus down to a much smaller number that alleviates or has a low probability or risk of it being transmitted from person to person within our communities.”

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

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