2020 | Schools

UPDATED: Teachers blast MCPS on reopening plan; school system says safety is top priority

Union says district plan ‘fails’ in adequate masking, social distancing, cleaning protocols

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This story was updated at 2 p.m. July 17, 2020, to make clear that MCPS officials did not speak at Thursday night’s meeting. It was updated again at 3:35 p.m. July 17, 2020, to add comments from MCEA President Chris Lloyd and at 4:10 p.m. to include a statement from the Montgomery County Board of Education. This story was updated again at 10 p.m. to include information from a video MCPS posted Friday afternoon.

A union representing Montgomery County Public Schools teachers tore into the district on Friday over its school reopening plans, saying they are unsafe.

The plan “is wholly inadequate to protect the health and safety of students and staff,” the Montgomery County Education Association said in a statement it issued late Friday morning.

Teachers also said that what the district told them privately does not match what the district has told the public.

MCPS spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment Friday morning, but in the afternoon, the school district released a 12-minute video titled “Just the facts.” In it, top school district officials addressed “lots of rumors circulating in the community.”

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, the Montgomery County Board of Education said the board and the district “always has, and always will, prioritize the health and safety of our students, staff, and community. These are difficult times, with difficult choices; however, some things are crystal clear. MCPS will begin the school year virtually.

“Any decision to move from a virtual environment will be informed by science and determined by the public health conditions in Montgomery County and with the advice and counsel of public health experts. We all want what is best for the community.”

For the past week, the district has outlined its plan for the fall semester to community members.

During school board meetings, press conferences, virtual town halls and written messages, district officials have detailed their plan — saying it’s not perfect, with a lot of questions left to answer, but it was one that many found reasonable.

The plan called for all students to begin the academic year from home. Then, the district would phase them back into school buildings throughout the fall.

The plan detailed social distancing in classrooms and on buses, stringent cleaning and disinfecting rituals, mandatory face coverings that MCPS would provide, if needed, and hand sanitizing stations at each school.

But, in a meeting on Thursday night, MCEA representatives appointed to MCPS committees to help shape the fall plan criticized the school district. The criticism came during a MCEA town hall.

Thursday night, a union official told Bethesda Beat that the meeting was between MCPS and MCEA officials, but in an interview on Friday, President Chris Lloyd said the meeting was a town hall organized by MCEA to recap discussions with MCPS during impact bargaining and meetings about the fall plan.

“I am extremely upset … this evening that the profession and county I love so clearly does not care for me back and I refuse to sacrifice my family or myself on the front lines for a plan that isn’t possible,” art teacher Anjali Wells wrote in an email to school board members, county government officials and local media on Thursday night.

The meeting was private and not open to the public. But more than a dozen teachers who were present shared with Bethesda Beat their detailed notes, which appear to show significant divergences from what MCPS has told the public and members of the media about precautions it will take to keep children and the staff safe when schools reopen.

MCPS officials allegedly told union members the school district would provide two cloth face coverings to each staff member and student to last the entire academic year, according to reports made during Thursday’s meeting.

MCPS allegedly told the union it was being “unreasonable” when it asked for N95 masks, which are higher-quality face coverings that filter out particles from the air.

Despite public statements saying otherwise, MCPS also said it will not install automatic hand sanitizer dispensers at schools or purchase new air filters and higher-grade cleaning supplies for schools, according to many attendees’ meeting notes.

Parent-teacher associations can provide their schools with cleaning supplies, MCPS allegedly told the union, which could mean that schools with more affluent families would have better access to supplies.

Students and teachers would be called upon to sanitize rooms between classes because the school district cannot afford to hire additional building services staff to accommodate more rigorous cleaning schedules.

The school district’s video on Friday afternoon covered some of these topics, but in more general terms, without addressing specific points raised during Thursday’s meeting.

Teachers said the details shared on Thursday are a stark contrast to public messages that indicated the school district will drastically increase cleaning and sanitizing to keep students and staff members safe.

“I have given 20 years of extremely hard and dedicated work to teaching in MCPS, but I do not want to die for this job,” teacher Bethany Petr, who has a compromised immune system and has been self-quarantining since March 13, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat Thursday night. “I have never been more disappointed or disgusted with the gross lack of concern for the health and safety of the students and staff of MCPS as I am right now.”

In a news release on Friday morning, MCEA said the information shared on Thursday raises “serious concerns” about student and community members’ safety.

“Masking, social distancing, and enhanced cleaning are the three pillars on which the MCPS plan rests, and it fails in all three areas,” it said. “… A plan replete with shortcomings cannot ensure the health and safety of students or staff. If MCPS leaders persist with this terribly flawed reopening, they will do so, leaving educators with an untenable choice: our jobs or our health and the health of the people we love.”

In an interview Friday afternoon, Lloyd said he’s “never seen teachers so anxious and so nervous.”

They don’t feel as if the MCPS administration is listening to them, he said, and too many questions have gone unanswered.

Lloyd said teachers understand the urgent need to provide students with face-to-face instruction, but “we don’t want to go back in a way that causes kids or faculty members harm.”

“You don’t want to be an alarmist and say, ‘Oh my gosh, people are going to die here,’ but you do want to say, ‘What if, in the course of all of these decisions we’re making, something bad does happen to a kid or an adult?’ The question we have to ask ourselves as leaders is whether we did enough to make sure that didn’t happen. There’s no margin for error.”

If MCPS and the union can’t reach an agreement about working conditions for the fall during impact bargaining, Lloyd acknowledged that it is the district’s legal authority to tell teachers they must return to schools.

Teachers reacted strongly to what they said was the school district’s reversal on earlier claims that it would allow educators to choose if they wanted to teach from home or return to schools.

Union leaders said on multiple occasions that Superintendent Jack Smith promised autonomy to teachers to decide what they feel comfortable doing.

Asked on June 19 if teachers could choose not to return to schools, district spokesman Derek Turner said, “The state is kind of outlining guidelines in terms of employees — it can’t just be because ‘I don’t want to.’ ”

But, he said, MCPS understands teachers’ concerns, adding, “We want to make sure we’re not putting anyone in danger.”

During Thursday night’s meeting, however, a tiered approach to allowing teachers to work remotely was unveiled that would prioritize the oldest employees and people with weak immune systems.

The tiers are: Older than 65 with a “qualifying” high-risk disorder, as defined by the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention; age; qualifying high-risk disorder; other underlying medical condition; child care requirements; general concern about returning to work.

Teachers would have to provide documentation to prove they have a health condition that meets criteria outlined by MCPS or the CDC.

MCPS has indicated that teachers will have to use accrued sick leave if they contract COVID-19 and the virus is not eligible for workers compensation.

In Montgomery County, where more than 16,000 people have contracted COVID-19 and more than 700 confirmed deaths have been recorded, teachers have been skeptical of MCPS’ plan since it was announced.

Many interviewed by Bethesda Beat last week said they didn’t think the virus is contained well enough to consider reopening schools and increasing people’s chance for exposure.

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.

In Maryland, about 6,700 children have tested positive for the coronavirus and one person between the ages of 10 and 19 has died.

Asked during a news conference on Wednesday what the appropriate balance is between students receiving in-person instruction and the risk of COVID-19 transmission, Smith said,“There’s not an answer to that question.”

He said people take risks every day, by deciding to go to the grocery store or the post office, for example, and will need to decide individually if in-person instruction is right for their family.

“What is appropriate is that we work with health professionals and we make a determination about what is acceptable and appropriate,” Smith said. “… Rather than saying what is an acceptable level of risk for schools, we need to talk about what do health professionals say, what does the evolving research say and what is right for each individual circumstance.”

MCPS “Just the Facts” video

In the MCPS video on Friday, none of the officials participating say where the “rumors” originated or where they’re spreading, but they take aim at several claims made by MCEA members on Thursday.

The MCPS officials in the video were Superintendent Jack Smith, Communications Director Derek Turner, Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight and Associate Superintendent for Operations Essie McGuire address.

“It’s time for some fun fact checking of our fall recovery considerations,” Turner said to start the video. “We’re hearing lots of rumors out there about what’s happening and we want to make sure you know the truth from MCPS directly.” For most topics, Turner asks a question about a rumor, then one of the other officials talks about it.

The claims MCPS addresses in the video are:

Phasing for returning to school buildings: Smith says classes will begin remotely Aug. 31. When students and teachers return to schools will depend on “health circumstances in our community and our state.”
“We actually don’t know when those phases will begin, but when they do begin we need to begin to bring students back into the school system,” Smith said. “We know that we have literally thousands and thousands of students who need to be in schools if at all possible.”

Background: The MCPS draft fall plan says it is the school district’s goal to have all students who choose to participate in face-to-face learning phased in to part-time school-based instruction by the end of November. The draft plan does say phasing will begin when health officials determine it is safe to do so.

MCPS is going to discipline kids not wearing masks: McKnight said MCPS students and staff will be required to wear face coverings in school buildings, but “we have to be nimble, as we are as educators,” to accommodate students’ needs.
“For instance, we definitely are not going to discipline a 6-year-old child who needs to take a break or struggles with adjusting to this new way to keeping themselves safe,” McKnight said. “What we are going to do is teach them about it, teach them about the importance of it and how it contributes to their environment in a responsible way.”

Background: Lloyd said teachers do not want to discipline students for struggling to wear masks at school, but were unclear about how the mandatory face-covering policy would be enforced, especially if they are unable to correct a student’s behavior on their own.

Only teachers and students are going to be cleaning classrooms: McGuire said building services workers are an important part of the school community and “will continue to and have even more responsibilities in keeping our environments safe in our schools.” At the same time, she said, everyone needs to contribute to the cleanliness of schools, and teachers and students would only be called upon to clean personal spaces.

Background: MCEA did not say only students and teachers would be responsible for cleaning classrooms, but did say members were concerned about students interacting with cleaning chemicals. Lloyd on Friday said, “That is not acceptable to us.”

MCPS will only provide two masks per staff member for the school year: McGuire said MCPS has spent “millions of dollars” purchasing personal protective equipment. She said MCPS has purchased various kinds of masks to accommodate everyone. Masks will be available at each school for anyone who comes to a building without one, McGuire said, and masks will be able to be replaced.

Background: The MCPS video did not explicitly address MCEA concerns about masks that will be available for students or say how many masks will be provided to students or staff members.

MCPS won’t buy hand sanitizer or touchless hand sanitizer dispensers: MCPS is buying “as much hand sanitizer as we can find,” McGuire said. Touchless dispensers are hard to find and are prioritized for health care professions. But, the school district will buy them if they are available, she said. Sanitizer dispenser stations will be placed throughout school buildings.

MCPS will force educators back into buildings and not give them any choice: Smith said “nobody is really forced to do anything,” and “we will continue to work with individual employees and individual families about what works for different families based on their needs.”

Background: Smith did not address what teachers say is a proposed tiered system to prioritize which teachers can work remotely.

Students will be required to use digital backgrounds during virtual classes: Turner said digital backgrounds are not allowed.

Background: MCEA’s press release on Friday did not broach this topic.

Fifteen students will be in each classroom: McGuire said each classroom will accommodate as many students as is safe while following social distancing guidelines. Often, this will mean about 12 students in a classroom, she said.
“The 15 number was a very high level math analysis to sort of figure out on a square-foot basis what our enrollment and capacity might support,” McGuire said. “When we really come down to looking at schedules and students in schools we’re going to be looking at that 6-foot distance in the classroom and we’ll work with a number that can support that.”

Background: During a media tour of College Gardens Elementary School in Rockville last month, MCPS showed several classrooms set up with social distancing guidelines in place. One classroom that would usually accommodate about 25 students was set up for 12 students.

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