2021 | Schools

MCPS will open schools March 1 for some small groups of students

Some special education, career and technical instruction will resume; full reopening plan starts March 15

MCPS staff members demonstrate what physical distancing might look like inside an elementary school during a tour in July of College Gardens Elementary School. The school board on Tuesday voted to begin returning students to schools March 1.

File photo

About 730 Montgomery County Public Schools students — less than one half of 1 percent of the overall student population — will return to schools March 1 after nearly a year of virtual remote classes.

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Board of Education approved a plan to bring back some students in special education and career and technical education programs in about three weeks.

The board also voted on Tuesday to begin its full four-phase reopening plan for the rest of MCPS’ 161,000 students beginning March 15.

The students who return on March 1 will be the first to take in-person classes since buildings closed March 13, 2020, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

About 500 special education students are included in the March 1 reopening plan. They will take in-person classes four days per week and take virtual classes from home on Wednesdays.

“These are the students who need the most intense adult support,” said Kevin Lowndes, associate superintendent of special education.

Students in the automotive, construction, cosmetology, health care and restaurant management programs at Seneca Valley, Gaithersburg, Damascus and Paint Branch high schools and the Thomas Edison High School of Technology will also be included in the March 1 reopening. MCPS said about 230 of these students are included. The return of juniors and seniors will be prioritized.

Students in the programs at Thomas Edison will attend virtual and in-person classes on alternating days, MCPS staff members said. The other schools’ students will attend in-person classes on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

School will look different than it did pre-pandemic, with social distancing and masking requirements, MCPS staff members said.

“However, it is important to recognize there is great value in the experience of being in school, riding the bus, seeing friends and having access to a staff member who is in person,” MCPS Chief of Teaching Learning and Schools Janet Wilson said.

For months, MCPS was hinging its reopening plan on key coronavirus benchmarks being met: a test positivity rate of 5% or less and a case rate of 15 cases per 100,000 people or less.

But, last month, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan prodded districts across the state to reopen by March 1, or possibly face legal repercussions.

MCPS officials say Hogan’s insistence means the district is no longer focusing on metrics to determine when schools should reopen, but rather using a target date.

MCPS previously was not planning on offering any face-to-face classes until March 15 at the earliest.

As of Tuesday, the county’s test positivity rate was about 4% and the case rate was about 23 cases per 100,000 people.

The majority of MCPS staff members have not been vaccinated. Montgomery County’s health department has not yet begun vaccinating educators. About 4,000 MCPS employees have been vaccinated through a partnership with Johns Hopkins University.

Derek Turner, chief of engagement, innovation and operations for the school district, said MCPS is partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation to create a “surveillance testing protocol” when buildings reopen. The New York City-based foundation has recently focused on helping districts reopen.

Turner did not elaborate on the partnership, aside from saying it will help the district “ensure we have an understanding of the safety of our schools.”

Educators that will return March 1 can go to schools and prepare their classes and participate in training on Feb. 22 to 24. Their virtual classes during that period will be taught by substitute teachers, and students will not miss instruction those days.

Other educators will be able to do the same March 8 to 10. There will be no school on March 8, while March 9 and 10 will be reserved for independent learning.

There will be no changes to the scheduled spring break in late March into early April. The last day of school will remain June 16.

MCPS’ request to cancel classes for four days prior to the March 15 reopening was denied by the state last month.

The district’s larger-scale reopening plan, scheduled to begin March 15, will be rolled out in four phases.

The phases and the deadlines for them to start:

• March 15: Career and special education programs not included in the March 1 reopening, alternative programs and kindergarten through third grade

• April 6: The remaining career programs, pre-kindergarten, fourth through sixth grade, and high school seniors

• April 19: Eighth grade, high school freshmen and high school juniors

• April 26: Seventh grade and high school sophomores.

Once they return to schools, middle and high school students will take classes in person for one week, then virtually for one week in an alternating schedule, which will vary school by school. Wednesdays will be virtual classes for all students every week.

Elementary schedules will vary by school and grade, but some will have face-to-face classes four days per week. Others will use an alternating weekly schedule like the middle and high schools have.

Smith said the district is hopeful for a more “normal” schedule when the 2021-22 academic year begins.

“We’re not planning something … today that will be forever,” Smith said. “We’re asking as a way to move back into schools safely and appropriately.”

Nearly 100,000 students — about 60% of the student body — will not return to schools this academic year, according to the results of a survey administered to families in December.

That number includes students who chose that option in the survey and students who will be automatically assigned virtual instruction because their families did not respond to the survey.

An analysis of the survey results showed students in the Bethesda and Chevy Chase area were the most likely to choose to return to schools when they reopen.

Families can contact their child’s school to request a switch in their preference. Requests to opt for in-person classes will only be accommodated if there is space available in the student’s school.

If there is no space, schools will place the student on a waitlist for open seats.

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