Parent, student protestors urge MCPS to reopen for in-person instruction

Parent, student protestors urge MCPS to reopen

Some say virtual learning is inadequate for those with special needs

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Parents and students protest along Rockville Pike on Wednesday outside of Montgomery County Public Schools' headquarters, urging school officials to reopen for in-person learning.

Photos by Dan Schere

A crowd of Montgomery County Public Schools parents and students gathered outside the district’s Rockville headquarters Wednesday evening, urging officials to reopen schools.

MCPS switched to virtual learning at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. It will continue at least through the first semester of the 2020-21 school year.

The school board is scheduled to talk early next month about the possibilities for a hybrid of in-person and virtual instruction if health indicators allow it.

District staff members told the board on Tuesday night that if the county reaches a two-week average of five coronavirus cases or fewer per 100,000 residents, schools could reopen for a mix of in-person and virtual instruction for all students. But they said limited in-person instruction could resume for small at-risk populations at a rate of 15 cases per 100,000 residents.

On Wednesday, the county was reporting a seven-day average of 11.9 cases per 100,000 residents.

Wednesday’s protest included about 80 people at its peak, organizers estimated. Some parents who attended said they have children with special needs who might get left behind academically and socially.

Edie Fortuna, a Silver Spring resident, attended with her 9-year-old son William, who is on the autism spectrum and has an individualized education program, or IEP. Fortuna said William is in a placement program that provides flexible scheduling and one-on-one support, but the distance learning program doesn’t meet all of his needs.

“His IEP is literally not being implemented on the internet, and he’s very much a relationship-based learner. So he’s drawn the short stick when it comes to meeting his IEP goals,” she said.

Fortuna works full time in the county as a public defender, and said her son needs the in-person attention.

“He requires prompting and sometimes one-on-one attention to keep him on task. And I’m trying to represent indigent criminal defendants,” she said.

William, holding a sign that said “Zoom Sux,” said the virtual conferencing platform “doesn’t really suck, but sucks education-wise.”

“It’s hard to listen and stuff,” he said.

Fortuna added that William gets jealous of his older brother, who attends a private Catholic school that has reopened at 25% capacity.

Rene Blitz said Wednesday that she recently moved to Potomac from Silver Spring, and her three children, who used to attend private school, now attend MCPS schools. The transition has been hard on them during the pandemic.

“We strongly feel that the schools should be opening now,” she said. “I know that there can be a way to make things as safe as possible.

“My kids are struggling. They’ve got IEPs and 504 plans [to help students with disabilities]. They’re not learning and they don’t have friends. They moved into a new area in May and they don’t know anybody and it’s just really lonely for them and they’re having a hard time with Zoom.”

Blitz said she is considering placing her children back into private school, so they can get the in-person contact they need.

“They need to learn, and learning at home on Zoom with me all day with them is not working. Also, it’s gonna be getting dark so early soon. They’re gonna be stuck inside. I’m worried about their mental health,” she said.

Dawn Iannaco-Hahn, a Silver Spring resident with sons in fourth and sixth grade, said one of her children has an IEP, and that despite his teachers’ best efforts, it hasn’t worked well for him. She noted that she has friends in Florida whose children have gone back to school.

“Their children have been back in-person learning since day one. … I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, ‘Oh my God. We need to pack it up and move to Florida,’ which is an unrealistic expectation of my family,” she said.

The Washington Post reported on Sept. 9 that since Florida’s schools reopened in August, the state’s Department of Health was reporting that more than 10,000 students under 18 had tested positive for the virus.

Iannaco-Hahn said she thinks that in order for MCPS to reopen, the school system needs to find the money to improve the HVAC and air filtration systems, and to provide teachers with personal protective equipment.

“If those two things happen, kids can safely return to school. It’s been done elsewhere. There’s no reason it can’t be done here,” she said.

Andy Detweiler, a Rockville resident with children ages 7 and 8, said he understands the safety concerns of reopening schools, but thinks county officials have turned the virus into a political issue, specifically referencing Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles and the Board of Education. 

“We started from a point of safety and then over the course of time, we’ve morphed that into something completely different,” he said.

Detweiler added that he worries many children are suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. He said the school system could use a targeted approach in determining which students to prioritize for in-person instruction.

“I haven’t studied the other school systems in the country to know who’s doing it right, but I think there are models out there where we can use common sense and get the most vulnerable populations back into school …,” he said.

Lavanya Sithanandam, a Takoma Park-based pediatrician who attended Wednesday’s protest, said her practice has seen a “record number of children with mental health crises” during the pandemic.

“We’ve seen a lot of kids have issues with the remote learning platform,” she said. “An inability to stay logged on all day. Failing grades. I’m seeing special needs kids that aren’t getting adequate interventional and therapy services, [which are] being done remotely and not in-person. And I’m just really worried about my patients.”

Sithanandam said studies Brown and Harvard universities have looked at data showing that health concerns over reopening schools presently don’t outweigh the costs to students of virtual learning. She noted that Virginia’s public schools are in the process of reopening.

“Their metrics are a lot worse, but they’re starting to get the school kids back. I think the most important thing is the masking and the distancing,” she said.

Sithanandam said she recognizes that the rising number of cases in Montgomery County might prevent MCPS from reopening now, but she wants a more proactive approach.

“I would really like MCPS to start coming up with a plan so that when the time is right, we can actually get kids into school and not have the parameters be so restrictive that it’s only when there’s a vaccine or only when the cases are so low,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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