Smith says MCPS reopening could happen sooner if health conditions drastically improve

Smith says MCPS reopening could happen sooner if health conditions drastically improve

School board shares concerns, hopes about plan for online fall semester

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The Montgomery County school board discusses the MCPS plan for fall classes during a meeting on Thursday.

Screenshot via livestream

The Montgomery County Board of Education on Thursday reviewed the school district’s plan for fully remote learning in the fall due to the coronavirus pandemic, sharing a litany of concerns and hopes about the “whole new world” of public education.

During 5 1/2 hours of discussion, board members said they worry about the amount of time students will spend in front of a computer and the potential that some have experienced significant learning loss since schools closed in March.

“I really wonder if this is an environment where we should be trying to have the layout of a regular classroom day,” Wolff said, speaking specifically about elementary school schedules that detail a full six-hour school day.

Several of her school board colleagues agreed, but the MCPS staff emphasized there will be several breaks integrated into students’ schedules. A graphic shared by staff members showed that in a six-hour, 15-minute school day, about two hours are reserved for breaks and lunch. Each class will have projects and assignments that are completed off-screen, as well, according to MCPS’ fall plan.

During Thursday’s meeting, Superintendent Jack Smith, referring to local COVID-19 transmission rates and caseloads, said “if things change dramatically” early in the fall, it’s possible “we might be able to accelerate” the timeline for reopening.

But, Smith cautioned, if health conditions do not improve or get worse, school reopenings will be delayed.

The declaration was different than previous public statements and language in the plan itself that says: “MCPS will remain in a virtual-only instructional model through the first semester … or until state and local health officials determine conditions in our county allow for students to return safely after the first semester.”

Smith called on state officials to develop and announce specific data targets that jurisdictions should reach to reopen.

A battle played out this week in Montgomery County when the county health officer twice tried to prohibit private schools from reopening for in-person instruction. Gov. Larry Hogan issued a superceding order the first time, and the state health secretary said the blanket ban is wrong the second time.

The school board did not officially vote on Thursday to ratify the fall plan for MCPS. It did, however, vote specifically to begin the school year virtually, cancel fall and winter sports and reassess by November whether schools can reopen for the second semester.

The school board is expected to continue its review of the fall plan, and vote to approve the final version during a meeting on Aug. 25, one week before the academic year begins.

The 43-page plan, released publicly on Tuesday, details proposed student schedules, a vision for athletics and extracurricular activities, and how students’ special education programs will be accommodated.

It shows daily lessons in core subjects, an increased focus on students’ social and emotional well-being, and breaks to use the bathroom and move around.

The plan says students will learn remotely through at least the first semester of the academic year.

Smith said district officials are awaiting further guidance on adjustments they can make to the school calendar, particularly eliminating built-in snow days or other school closures. It’s possible, he said, virtual learning could replace snow days, even when buildings reopen.

“We’re waiting on the state to say we don’t have snow days anymore, and we alternate between virtual and … a face-to-face experience (when school buildings reopen),” Smith said.

Some school board members said they were worried that students have regressed academically since school buildings closed, or didn’t learn as much as they would have participating in face-to-face learning.

In the fall, MCPS will spend several weeks administering assessments to students to evaluate their academic progress. Then, throughout the fall, “targeted interventions” will be provided to students, staff members said.

“We also know we are going to have to be strategic with after-school programs, directly tied to the results of the diagnostics,” said Janet Wilson, MCPS’ chief of teaching, learning and schools.

Other concerns were raised about child care opportunities, student attendance and communication plans. There was also discussion of whether everything students need to learn can fit into the fully virtual schedule and whether the schedule will be flexible enough to accommodate families’ unique circumstances.

Board member Jeanette Dixon disagreed with MCPS staff members who said they believe the fall schedule “provides ample time for teacher planning, preparation and collaboration.”

Dixon, a former teacher and principal, said she has heard from countless educators who disagree, and she proposed having students do independent learning on Wednesdays to give teachers more time for planning, grading and professional development.

MCPS’ current plan reserves half of Wednesdays for independent learning and teacher planning time.

“Not one of us on this Board of Education or … in [the] central office has taught virtually, and I think that we do need to listen to what the teachers are telling us here,” Dixon said. “Just because you’ve had training doesn’t mean you’re automatically proficient in using the training. It takes time to do that and we should provide that time.”

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

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