2021 | Schools

No changes to MCPS weekly in-person rotations, distancing guidance

1,200 students on ‘wait lists’ for face-to-face instruction

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During a school tour in February, Farquhar Principal Joel Beidleman uses a promethean board to complete a lesson that both in-person and virtual students can see.

File photo

The Montgomery County Board of Education on Tuesday opted to continue using a weekly rotation for in-person classes, dashing some community members’ hopes of more face-to-face instruction.

For weeks, school reopening advocates have pushed for MCPS to stop using its model of in-person learning that has students in buildings for one week and at home the next, on a rotating schedule. The request coincided with another asking MCPS to cut physical distancing requirements in classrooms from 6 feet to 3 feet.

They pointed to:

• recently updated federal guidance about physical distancing
• a “wait list” of students unable to take in-person classes because of space restrictions
• research that suggests prolonged time away from schools contributes to social-emotional problems and decreased grades.

But, while acknowledging the struggles of virtual classes and expressing a desire to cut in to the wait list, Superintendent Jack Smith said the “disruption” that would be caused by changing the schedule “is too great.”

He and other MCPS administrators said adjusting the schedule to let all students enrolled in face-to-face classes go to schools each week would mean student schedules would often have to be changed. Also, more staff members would be needed to supervise lunch, recess and dismissal.

Associate Superintendent Cheryl Dyson said the change would “impact the quality of learning for kids who remain virtual” because more of teachers’ focus would be on the larger group of in-person students.

Some school board members pushed back, but none requested a vote to change the schedule.

Several school board members did, however, ask MCPS to re-evaluate whether Wednesdays of each week should continue to be reserved for all-virtual classes.

Member Lynne Harris chided the district for claiming to be “innovative,” but resisting efforts for larger-scale reopenings.

“I’m not sure given that we’re very near the last in the nation to reopen that we’re being particularly innovative,” Harris said. “On the one hand, we talk about [how] our students are eventually going to be OK … because they’re resilient. But then we say we can’t change anything now because it would be too disruptive to our students, and I think they’re more resilient and capable than that.”

Board member Karla Silvestre noted that other area school districts have adjusted to new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that says in some instances, schools can keep 3 feet of distance between students rather than 6 feet, and asked why MCPS can’t adjust, as well.

Smith said most other districts are smaller than MCPS (which is among the 15 largest in the country) and “made different decisions upfront and they have made other decisions going forward.”

As of Tuesday, he said, about 1,200 students are waiting for space at their school to attend in-person classes.

He said about 58% of schools have a wait list. Of those, Smith said, 38% have a list of nine students or fewer. That means about 20% of schools have a wait list of 10 or more students.

In the winter, MCPS sent a survey to all families asking them to commit to continuing with fully virtual classes or a mix of in-person and virtual classes for the remainder of the academic year.

At the time, MCPS officials said students could easily switch from in-person to all-virtual classes, but that space would be limited in schools and later requests to attend face-to-face classes might take time to accommodate.

According to the initial results of that survey, about 60,000 students chose to return to schools, while the remaining approximately 100,000 students either chose to remain fully virtual or did not respond and were automatically enrolled in the virtual option.

Over the past seven weeks, MCPS has gradually phased students back into buildings, starting on March 1.

The district began its last leg of the outlined reopening phases on Monday, bringing back seventh grade through high school seniors for the first time in more than a year. Because of the weekly rotation, some students in the final phase are not scheduled to return to buildings until next week.

The academic year ends on June 16.

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