2021 | Schools

Some Montgomery County parents rethink school plans amid uncertainty about COVID-19 variants

Some hope to keep children home; others fear pivot back to virtual classes

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A teacher at Arcola Elementary School leads a class in June.

File photo

Less than a month before the start of the school year, with a COVID-19 variant prompting a new wave of infections, some Montgomery County families are having questions about student safety and about administrators’ commitment to maintaining in-person education.

County leaders and education administrators say the safety steps they’re taking – such as requiring masks in schools – are to ensure schools can reopen in person. School system officials say they do not plan to reopen enrollment for the virtual academy.

For months, the pandemic that cost the lives of more than 1,600 Montgomery residents slowly loosened its grip in the county. County school administrators committed in March to a normal full-time, in-person schedule in the fall, simultaneously opening enrollment for a new all-virtual option for families who weren’t ready to return to buildings.

While enrollment for the program was open, much of the data the county tracks to measure the severity of the virus’ spread were at or near their lowest points of the pandemic.

In June, with the test positivity rate below one-half of 1%, and fewer than one new case per 100,000 people, Derick Carter felt comfortable sending his unvaccinated 6-year-old son back to school.

But in recent weeks, since the enrollment period for the virtual academy closed, trends have reversed, and health experts across the country are sounding the alarm about the spread of more contagious variants.

“My feeling now is it’s a probability game, like we’re gambling with our kids’ lives,” Carter said. “For me, without a doubt, there will be children that get COVID and I don’t want to play the game of ‘maybe my child won’t be the one who gets it, or if he does, it won’t be serious.’ ”

Carter said he’s not looking for a full shutdown of schools or a complete pivot to virtual classes again.

Instead, he wants flexibility. He wants to be able to enroll his son in the virtual academy now that there is new information about the pandemic.

MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said in an interview on Tuesday that the district does not plan to reopen registration for the virtual academy, mainly because it needs to ensure there are enough teachers employed to staff the program.

While there are no guarantees, families with “unique situations” should contact the district to discuss possible late enrollment in the program, Onijala said.

Otherwise, Onijala said, families should be assured that schools will have “measures in place,” like a face-covering requirement and increased hand washing, to keep students and staff members safe.

“We understand the news (about the COVID-19 variants) is very unsettling, and we’ve seen numbers go in the opposite direction of where they should be going, but we’re confident we’ve put a lot of things in place to help keep students and staff safe in school buildings,” Onijala said.

Face coverings

In Montgomery County, metrics remain relatively low compared with the peak of the pandemic last winter, but there has been a notable increase in the number of cases, test positivity rate and the percentage of local hospital beds in use by COVID-19 patients.

But about two months after lifting face-covering mandates, the Montgomery County Council plans to meet on Thursday to decide if the requirement should be reinstated when people are indoors.

The school system announced last week that it will require everyone to wear face coverings at school, regardless of vaccination status, aligning with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Nobody younger than 20 has died of COVID-19 in Montgomery County, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. And while children make up about 25% of the county’s overall cases each month, they are not often becoming seriously ill, according to county health leaders.

During a call with reporters on Wednesday, Earl Stoddard, an acting chief administrative officer for the county, said that over the past month, about 4.1% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations in the county were among children younger than 10.

Hospitalization rates are still generally higher for older people, Stoddard said, and there has not recently been any upticks in severe illness among children.

But for Carter, it’s not necessarily about the severity of the illness.

“If there was an influenza or chickenpox outbreak at your child’s school, I don’t think we would send our kids, knowing there’s an outbreak, and with COVID, there’s so much more that we don’t know,” he said.

And he’s not alone.

The mother of a second-grade student and a seventh-grade student in Clarksburg said she pulled her children out of MCPS last year to homeschool (as did about 1,200 others countywide), but re-enrolled them for the 2021-22 school year.

If conditions worsen, she plans to return to homeschooling until her youngest child can receive the vaccine.

Others have said they are considering private schools or moving to other areas where they can enroll in a virtual option later.

Concerns about closures

While some parents consider alternative plans for fear of the virus, others are making contingency plans for other reasons.

After more than a year of nearly complete closures of school buildings, a delayed reopening process in the spring has planted seeds of doubt that the school system will stick to its current plan of reopening full-time for all.

Administrators thrice delayed reopening after first closing in March 2020. Each time, the spread of the coronavirus was cited as the reason.

When the district finally did begin reopening, it was a slow process, beginning first with small groups of students with specialized needs. Then, over the course of about six weeks, students who wanted to return were phased back into schools.

Many schools split students into groups who would attend in-person classes every other week. Wednesdays were virtual for all students each week.

MCPS has said several times — and demonstrated through two elementary schools that run nearly year-round — that it will eliminate many of the restrictions in place last spring that limited how many and how often students could be in buildings.

Aside from the roughly 2,300 students enrolled in the virtual academy, each of the district’s roughly 160,000 students will attend classes in person full-time, like normal, MCPS has said.

During a call with reporters on Wednesday, County Executive Marc Elrich said he’s gotten “a lot of strange emails” from people considering a possible reimplementation of an indoor mask mandate — which county officials will decide on Thursday — as foreshadowing school closures.

But, “everything we’re doing is to avoid shutting things down,” Elrich said. He later added that he doesn’t believe there is a “sinister plot” to delay reopenings.

Stoddard added: “An interruption to education experience is something we’re trying to avoid at all costs.”

Looking elsewhere

But some families say they aren’t convinced and are eyeing homeschooling or private school to ensure their children get back into buildings.

For these parents, concerns about their children’s social and emotional well-being and academic progress — which all took a hit while learning remotely — outweigh concerns about the virus.

Dawn Iannaco-Hahn, parent of a rising fifth-grade student at Stonegate Elementary School in Silver Spring, said her family is considering enrolling their son in private school. Her older son, a middle school student, was enrolled in a private school in December and will continue classes there this year.

“Affording private school is a huge stretch for us financially, but I am willing to take out a second mortgage to do so if I we need to, because my kids getting a proper education is that important to me, and Zoom school (and what happened in MCPS last year) is not a proper education,” Iannaco-Hahn wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat.

Benjamin Gilbert of Kensington, a parent of two children enrolled in county schools, said he would feel more confident in MCPS’ commitment to reopening if the district issued a statement saying clearly it won’t close buildings again in the absence of absolute proof that local schools are a source of the virus’ spread.

“If they say, ‘Well, we need a couple of weeks to determine what to do, and everybody’s going to go back to virtual,’ we are going to put my kid into Catholic school, most likely, and I’m Jewish, if that says anything,” Gilbert said. “I would never consider Catholic school up until now, but it would be my best option.”

In a recent interview, Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight, who took over for now-retired superintendent Jack Smith in June, said one of her goals during her year in the position is to rebuild trust from the community.

Before taking over the top position in the district, McKnight was deputy superintendent, often leading meetings and events in Smith’s place.

A familiar face in MCPS, McKnight has attended several district happenings in recent weeks, like pop-up events to answer families’ questions and school board meetings. She has not yet held a formal press conference, but a school district spokeswoman said one is being scheduled prior to the start of the school year.

“Engaging with families, students and staff members “is even more important to me in this role, because it’s one thing to plan for a circumstance or situation or an environment that I think I know,” McKnight said. “But one way that I can ensure that I am having a good understanding of something is to be a part of it, or to interact with it, and that’s what I intend to do.”

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