MCPS teachers concerned about students, faculty safety if schools reopen

Some MCPS teachers say in-person classes ‘simply won’t work’

As district rolls out its vision for fall semester, teachers have mounting concerns, questions

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As Montgomery County Public Schools’ plan for the fall semester becomes clearer, many teachers are voicing concerns about student and staff safety.

On Saturday, MCPS, the state’s largest school district, released its draft plan for the fall, which shows all students beginning the 2020-21 academic year entirely online, with a phased approach to bring them back to school buildings part-time by the end of November.

The school board will discuss the plan during a meeting on Tuesday, but is not expected to vote to finalize the recommendation.

MCPS officials have cautioned that the plan could change based on local health conditions and community feedback.

Bethesda Beat spoke with 22 educators about the plan, a small sample of the district’s approximately 14,000 teachers. The results of a survey sent to staff members in June to gather feedback about fall classes have not been released, and a representative of the teachers union could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Most of the teachers who spoke to Bethesda Beat raised serious concerns about student and faculty safety if they return to school buildings. More than half said they would refuse to teach in person, not because they enjoy conducting classes remotely, but because they feel that the risks — strained relationships with students, possible illness or death — outweigh the rewards.

“Bottom line, it is not safe for teachers to go back in the fall,” Watkins Mill High School teacher Matt Reese wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat. “… I personally will not be returning to the classroom and If that means I have to quit then I will do so. Going to school not only puts me at additional risk but it puts my 3 children at additional risk. I will not put my own children at additional risk to save the economy.”

Fellow Watkins Mill High teacher Laura Davis Vaughan, who has an autoimmune disorder, said she also “definitely won’t be going back” to school buildings.

She pointed to local, state and national data that show Black and Hispanic people are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, and said it is immoral to expose minority children more often.

At Watkins Mill, 81.4% of the student body identify as Black or Hispanic.

Davis Vaughan said she fears not only for her students, but their families, too, if a child contracts COVID-19 at school but is asymptomatic and spreads it to others.

If there is a return to school buildings, there is a risk of teachers having to constantly discipline and reprimand students for not complying with social distancing guidelines, possibly damaging important, fragile relationships, Davis Vaughan said.

“If you have teachers who constantly have to remind kids to get away from each other, to stop hugging each other — if you have kids getting in trouble all the time for doing things that are natural to them, you’re going to have constant combat,” Davis Vaughan said. “The majority of successfully educating a child is about having a positive relationship with them. This model simply won’t work.”

Lissa Vincent, a physics teacher at Richard Montgomery High School, said the fears that students will routinely take off their masks or disregard distancing rules are likely unfounded.

Students, Vincent said, might spend a day or two goofing off, but eventually, the novelty will wear off and the new normal will become routine.

She said the MCPS fall plan is “not ideal, but it’s workable.”

Vincent said she trusts that the school district will have adequate safety precautions in place if students and staff members return to school buildings. While she might not be completely comfortable, Vincent said, she would teach face-to-face classes because “I believe if we do go back, it’ll be safe.”

“I think people would all get a little further if we assume best intentions,” she said. “I can look at this plan and think, ‘We can actually do that.’ ”

In a statement on Monday evening, MCPS wrote that it is working with local health officials to make sure its reopening plan is safe. The statement said the health and safety of students, staff and the community is the school district’s “highest priority.”

“All of our work on Fall 2020 recovery is grounded in the principles of safety, high-quality instruction, equity, engagement and optimization of resources,” it said.

Each educator, parent and student who spoke with Bethesda Beat this week had a list of questions that remain unanswered after reviewing MCPS’ draft fall plan.

Among them:

• Who will decide when a coronavirus outbreak warrants a shutdown of a school or the district?
• How many cases at a school would force it to close?
• Will school officials legally be able to notify families if their child was exposed to the virus?
• How will MCPS ensure that all students receive equitable education opportunities in the fall?
• Will English language learners and students in special education programs receive the services they need?

And finally:

• If the school board has to meet virtually to review the plan, isn’t that an indicator that it’s not time to begin discussing in-person classes?

Matt Green, a teacher at William H. Farquhar Middle School in Olney, wondered how MCPS plans to negate the “emotional damage” the pandemic will inflict on children, and how the school district will communicate with students who would worry if a teacher or classmate were absent from class.

It would be unnerving, he wrote, to know that at any moment, someone in the classroom could become infected.

“It will be weird to teach in a classroom where everyone, at every moment, is worried that someone in the room is breathing their death,” Green wrote in an email. “Each of us in this room now has the solid chance of being patient zero in some other family’s tragedy.”

Like staff members, students and community members also had a range of reactions to MCPS’ fall plan during interviews with Bethesda Beat.

High school seniors lamented being among the last expected to return to schools, expressing their fear of falling behind in the college admissions process without easy access to counselors and advisers.

Many students said they worried about their teachers’ health and, regardless of the instruction method, were anxious about new routines and expectations.

Parents who work essential jobs agonized about how they would find and afford child care. Others fretted about students’ mental health if they remain isolated from their peers.

Emily Beckman, a Walter Johnson High School cluster coordinator with children in third and sixth grade, said she is hopeful that distance learning will be more robust than it was in the spring.

She was heartened to see that MCPS plans to bring transition grades back to buildings first. Often, transition years (moving from elementary to middle or middle to high school) are difficult both emotionally and academically for children.

“My sense at this point is they’re doing the best they can,” Beckman said of MCPS. “I have a lot of sympathy for the people having to make these decisions because they are really difficult.”

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

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