2021 | Schools

On first day, MCPS, county leaders vow to do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep schools open

160,000 students returned to buildings to start school year on Monday

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MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight speaks on Monday during a press conference at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown.

Photos by Caitlynn Peetz

After 18 months of widespread school closures and criticism of a slow return to in-person classes, Montgomery County Public Schools officials were clear on the first day of classes Monday: The main objective is to “do whatever it takes” to safely keep buildings open.

On Monday, about 160,000 students returned to MCPS’ 209 schools for the beginning of the academic year, a stark contrast to last year’s start, when every student logged on to virtual classrooms.

For some, it was a sigh of relief knowing children were returning to face-to-face classes and social interaction with friends. For others, it sparked anxiety as COVID-19’s spread escalates.

MCPS officials said Monday that their commitment is twofold, and addresses all sides: ensuring students’ safety and keeping them in schools.

“My main interest is protecting exactly what we’re seeing here today,” Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said as she watched students step off a school bus and walk into Richard Montgomery High School. “… To provide the in-person learning, so we’re able to have that and keep it throughout the year, and keep students safe. … Then, in that way, we have been able to successfully beat the virus. And not beat it in the way that it doesn’t exist, but beat it in the way that it does not interfere with the education we should and must provide to students in a meaningful way.”

In the spring, after a complete year without in-person instruction, MCPS began a slow, phased reopening of its schools. Students who opted to return attended in-person classes part-time, usually one week at a time, with virtual classes every Wednesday.

When COVID-19 rates improved, parents pushed the district to allow the students to return each week and to clear its “waiting lists” of students unable to return due to social distancing guidelines.

MCPS declined to do so, saying it would be too much of an adjustment.

So, as districts across the country welcomed larger groups of students back, MCPS had among the smallest percentages of its student body back in buildings in the state — and, according to one tracker, the country.

But the district is under new leadership this year under McKnight, following the retirement of Superintendent Jack Smith. And McKnight has been clear since the spring that MCPS is committed to a full reopening and in-person classes.

Students wait for the first day of school to start on Monday at Gaithersburg Elementary School.

This month, MCPS announced it would not close its buildings due to the spread of COVID-19, unless ordered to do so by state officials.

McKnight said MCPS has more information now, which, paired with the county’s high vaccination rates, puts it “in a better position” to successfully reopen.

“We have to take all of the lessons we’ve learned about how to manage this pandemic, and now it’s about knowing how we can do better and be better and protect that interest,” McKnight said. “… We will continue to connect with our families, so they know how those processes are moving forward and can feel better about sending their students to in-person learning knowing we are doing everything in our power to create safe spaces.”

During a press conference Monday morning, county officials — including Council President Tom Hucker and Craig Rice, chair of the council’s Education & Culture Committee — praised the school district for a successful start to the academic year and its commitment to reopening.

County Executive Marc Elrich, a former teacher, said he’s been part of many first-day activities in his life, but none as special as Monday’s.

“There is something special about this, and it’s the 18 months of closure and 18 months of really difficult times … of having to adapt to a world that none of us knew anything about,” Elrich said.

Parents walk their children to Gaithersburg Elementary School on Monday morning.

He added that he doesn’t believe there’s been a time in history that affected the country’s ability to educate children in the same way. “So what’s happened to us is something unprecedented. … In its absence, we really missed it,” he said.

During a separate press conference on Monday, County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said he believes measures MCPS has implemented to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such as mandatory face coverings and a vaccination-or-test requirement, will help avoid large-scale closures of schools due to exposures of the virus.

“The scale and scope of the investigations and quarantines, we feel, will be minimized due to the mitigation efforts that are put into place,” Gayles said. “ … When schools opened in the fall last year, we did have a significant amount of investigations that required follow-up, and in some cases required a number of students to be quarantined. … But certainly … if our contact tracing team, if we find a larger level of exposure, we would have to take that level of action.”

A crossing guard guides families across the street on Monday to Gaithersburg Elementary School

On Monday morning, standing outside Richard Montgomery High School, listening to the band play as students walked into the building, school board President Brenda Wolff was happy.

“We know there will be some issues, but you do feel like you’re returning to a more normal life,” she said. “I couldn’t wait for us to get to Monday — today — because it’s some semblance of normalcy. I know our students need it. We all need it.”

Staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this story.

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