2021 | Schools

More half days added to MCPS calendar, expanding staff professional development

Board members criticize lack of advance notice, community input

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The Montgomery County school board meets on Thursday afternoon in Rockville.

Caitlynn Peetz

Montgomery County teachers will have more time for planning and professional development this spring — a change the school board made Thursday after an uncharacteristically tense squabble.

The nearly hour-long debate centered on a lack of advance information about the proposed changes — including changing some full days to half days — both to school board members and the public.

Board members said they were not given information about Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight’s proposal until Thursday morning, hours before they were to vote, even though the topic was on the meeting agenda for at least a week.

Four proposals to change the calendar were defeated in split votes by the board.

On the fifth try, the board voted 6-1 to approve the changes, with member Lynne Harris in opposition.

The changes include:

• Making Jan. 12, March 24 and May 18 half days for students, to allow teachers and other staff members time for professional development and planning.

• Adding “systemwide closures” on Dec. 23, Dec. 27-30, and April 13-14. These days were already noninstructional days for students.

• Adding a systemwide closure on June 20 in observance of Juneteenth, now a federally recognized holiday.

McKnight emphasized during Thursday’s meeting that, even with the new half days, MCPS will still provide more instructional hours than what is required by the state Department of Education. She said MCPS will exceed the minimum requirement by about 60 hours at the elementary level, 120 hours at the middle school level and about 30 hours at the high school level.

McKnight said the professional development time is critical for employees who “had to transform the way that they did their work” during the COVID-19 pandemic. She highlighted an increased use of technology both in and out of the classroom.

“(The changes) acknowledge (teachers) need the time to build their skill set, collaborate with one another, and understand the resources we have available to them to continue to build their craft to be the best staff to meet the needs of our students,” McKnight said.

But her proposal was immediately met with displeasure from observers, who held up messages opposing removing any instructional time from students’ schedules, particularly because they were confined to virtual classes for more than a year during the pandemic.

Several board members raised similar concerns, but the larger frustration was with the lack of advance notice about the proposed changes, both so they could prepare and so community members could offer feedback.

McKnight did not address why the meeting materials were not provided to board members earlier.

The issue was a key point of debate while the board considered the changes. Some board members — Harris, Karla Silvestre and Rebecca Smondrowski — four times voted against the proposals because they thought the community should have been able to weigh in, or because they felt there should be a more explicit focus on providing educational opportunities for students during the off time.

Ultimately, Silvestre and Smondrowski switched their votes to approve the changes, while Harris maintained her opposition.

Smondrowski said, however, that it is “unacceptable that we be given materials of this consequence” with so little advance notice.

2022-23 calendar

The school board delayed finalizing the district’s 2022-23 academic calendar to allow the public time to weigh in on minor changes to the proposal.

In October, the school board released three calendar options and invited public feedback.

Two options showed classes beginning on Aug. 30 (before Labor Day) and ending June 15. The third option started the year on Sept. 6 (after Labor Day) and ended on June 22.

The majority of people who responded to an online survey preferred the pre-holiday start.

During Thursday’s meeting, MCPS staff members recommended that the school board approve a calendar that started the academic year before Labor Day. The recommendation, however, showed the school year starting on Aug. 29 and ending on June 16, which was not previously presented to the community as an option.

The days were adjusted because the district will again close schools and offices on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, as was done this year, which was not previously in the calendar proposals. The district also had not aligned a noninstructional day with the Muslim holiday of Eid, as it has done in the past.

Board members said they believe families should have the opportunity to review the option before it is approved.

The board is scheduled to finalize the calendar in January.

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