Parents, teachers and students on Sunday called on Montgomery County Public Schools leaders to communicate better about staffing shortages and in-person instruction while the COVID-19 omicron variant surges through the county.
County Council Member Tom Hucker organized Sunday’s two-hour meeting, which several thousand people attended, in response to concerns and confusion last week.
Last week, after winter break, school was canceled three out of five days because of bad weather.
On Tuesday, 11 schools shifted to virtual learning after passing a threshold of more than 5% COVID-19 positivity among students, teachers and staff members. The next day, MCPS announced that 115 schools met the same threshold, but would remain in-person.
By Friday, the school system had scrapped the 5% threshold as an automatic trigger for considering school closures.
MCPS also did not update a dataset showing positivity percentages at individual schools on Thursday, despite a pledge by Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight to do so at the end of every school day.
Hucker said concern over a lack of transparency on those issues, as well as a bus driver shortage that cancelled dozens of routes for three straight days and other staffing shortages at schools, were subjects his constituents expressed their concerns about.
“So, due to all these reasons and more, I want all of the MCPS leaders who are listening to know the overall level of concern is extremely high, and that certainly all of us on the council hear you,” he said Sunday.
“I realize this is a highly charged situation. People have very different opinions. The one thing I hope we can all agree on today is that we should all of us want our students and their families and our educators and support staff to be safe.”
On Sunday, MCPS released a community message apologizing for how it handled last week’s problems and giving updated quarantine guidelines.
The message noted that students will receive KN-95 masks over the next two weeks, and that students and staff members are supposed to get take-home rapid tests this week. MCPS is requesting families to report test results by Friday.
More than 30 people spoke during Sunday’s town hall meeting. More of them favored virtual instruction than continuing in person.
Several town hall attendees on Sunday raised the testing issue. Claire Rosche Matzzie, a physician assistant and MCPS parent, said required testing in schools is essential.
“In order to return to school, the test needs to be reported. If there are families who have difficulty with that test, there needs to be support for them,” she said. “The test needs to be provided by [the Department of Health and Human Services]. We don’t need to have people waiting in line for two hours for a PCR.”
Rosche Matzzie said MCPS must have virtual learning options for any students who are quarantining due to getting COVID-19, or others who are isolating because they or their family members have health risks.
Laura Stewart, a member of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations and the parent of a student at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, said she worried about sending her son back to school last week without a clear testing plan.
“We waited and waited, and finally we received word that they were basically going to open normally without tests available for kids,” she said.
Stewart said that when her son went to school Wednesday, half of his teachers weren’t there and he was in a classroom without an adult for an entire period. Two other classes had “minimal” adult supervision, she said.
“We need a plan. We need a plan to test before we come into our schools, so that we know the situation that we have,” she said. “We need a plan to get buses to kids, because right now some them have to walk, sometimes hours, to school. We need a plan to cover classes that aren’t being covered ….”
Many attendees during Sunday’s meeting discussed the rash of absences of students and teachers last week.
Megan Fitzharris, a choral teacher at Briggs Chaney Middle School in Cloverly, said that at one point last week between one-half and one-third of each of her classes was absent. The absences were due to students testing positive and quarantining, and others whose families won’t allow their children to attend school in person.
“The current school situation is not safe, and is not sustainable,” she said.
Kathryn, a Takoma Park Middle School teacher who didn’t provide her last name, said she favored MCPS maintaining in-person instruction — until last week’s developments.
She said that in addition to her three 90-minute classes, she had to cover a class whose teacher was absent. Kathryn added that students didn’t want to go to lunch due to the threat of the virus, and ate in her classroom instead.
“If I have to do a whole week like that day-and-a-half last week, I can’t,” she said. “And I feel like MCPS is jeopardizing the future of the quality of education, what they’re asking the staff to do that are remaining in the building.”
Zoe Cantor, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, said positive COVID-19 test results passed the 5% threshold last week at her school. The trend is particularly concerning to her because she has immunocompromised parents.
“And I’ve been doing my best to not get COVID. It’s really concerning to me because I already know so many people who go to my school who are in quarantine. And I’m worried that I’m next,” she said.
Cantor said she started a petition last week urging MCPS to shift to virtual learning temporarily.
“When you get COVID, you’re gonna be set back in school,” she said.
Emily, the parent of an eighth-grader at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus who didn’t provide her last name, said her daughter has a chromosome disorder that doesn’t fight infection easily. A regular cold can keep her home for a month, she said.
“If she gets COVID, most likely, she will be in the hospital,” she said.
“It just seems like right now with everything that’s happening, everybody just needs a break. Everybody is sick. Everybody just needs two weeks of virtual. Let everybody get better and then let everybody go back.”
Nicole Brown, the parent of an MCPS fifth grader, was one of the few attendees on Sunday who said she favored the continuation of in-person instruction.
“Health is more than COVID, and shutting kids out of school harms kids’ mental health and wellbeing,” she said. “There’s a mental health crisis and this is the result of the isolation experience when schools are closed.”
Board of Education Member Lynne Harris also attended Sunday’s meeting, and said it’s important for people to understand how the school system is making its decisions.
“For me, I do think that we can operate schools safely with good, solid mitigation strategies,” she said. “My biggest concern now, as so very many of you have expressed, is our staffing challenges and providing students stability.”
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org