2021 | Schools

Montgomery County teachers union votes ‘no confidence’ on MCPS reopening plan

Educators want vaccines before returning to buildings, are concerned about equity

The Montgomery County teachers union took a vote of “no confidence” in the Montgomery County Public Schools reopening plan, officially solidifying its stance that the plan is “irresponsible.”

In a news release on Tuesday night, the union announced that its members “overwhelmingly passed” the resolution during an emergency meeting. The news release does not say by what margin the resolution was passed.

The resolution says the district is not equipped to implement the plan and it risks students’ and staff members’ safety.

The union — the Montgomery County Education Association — demands that MCPS implement a contact tracing and COVID-19 testing program, adhere to guidelines established by the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention for reopening, and “provide all employees the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before a return to in-person instruction.”

It also asks that the district release data about ventilation results of each classroom and office before teachers return to buildings, and provide updated air quality controls as needed.

In some schools, MCPS plans to have educators teaching both virtual and remote classes simultaneously, which the union argues will require additional support staff that the district is not prepared to provide. The lack of resources will most severely affect Black and Hispanic students, who have largely chosen to continue with virtual classes, the union said.

“MCEA cannot support the current plan, which will only increase inequity in Montgomery County schools,” the news release said.

In a statement, MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala wrote that the district “has developed a comprehensive recovery plan that prioritizes the safety of students and staff, and the continued growth of all students.”

“While we understand that staff may have some questions and concerns, these plans were developed with input from a diverse set of MCPS stakeholders and are reflective of the district’s commitment to fostering a partnership that benefits our students, staff and community,” the statement said. “We look forward to welcoming the first group of students back to our buildings on March 1 and March 15 and know that our staff is committed to meeting the needs of our students both in-person and virtually.”

The union has requested a meeting with the school board to discuss its concerns.

The vote of no confidence is an official showing by the union, which represents about 14,000 educators, that it does not support the reopening plan.

The first group of about 700 students — less than 1% of the student body — is scheduled to return to schools on March 1 after a year of virtual classes. Other students will begin to phase back into buildings March 15.

Students were last in schools for regular, in-person classes on March 13, 2020.

MCEA leadership last week released a statement calling the reopening plan, which the school board approved in a unanimous vote Feb. 9, “irresponsible.”

“MCPS is refusing to acknowledge that the lack of available vaccines is preventing educators from receiving the protection they need, and exposing them to unnecessary risk of harm in the in-school setting,” MCEA wrote in the statement.

Neither private nor public school educators meet the criteria to be vaccinated at county-run sites yet.

They can, however, receive vaccines from some private providers or at state-run mass vaccination sites.

Most staff members who will return or who have been working in buildings already to hand out free meals or complete other essential work have not been vaccinated.

This month, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said school reopenings should not depend on teachers being vaccinated first.

During a call with reporters last week, Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said he does not “necessarily agree.”

He did not explicitly say he believes educators should be vaccinated before MCPS reopens, but said, “We need to do everything we can to provide protection to staff members going back into buildings.”

Despite its objections to the MCPS reopening plan, MCEA this week announced it has reached a tentative agreement about working conditions when staff returns to schools.

In Maryland, unions are not legally allowed to go on strike. In announcing the tentative agreement, which must still be finalized by both sides, the union wrote that it “felt it was imperative to formalize protections in writing.”

The agreement ensures that educators can take time off with pay to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and establishes that educators will be granted paid sick leave if they are exposed to or become sick with COVID-19 and cannot work.

MCEA said it is still jointly negotiating with other employee unions some issues, such as hazard pay, instructional models and “systemic inequities.”

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