2021 | Schools

Teachers union calls MCPS reopening plan ‘irresponsible’

District does not have space, resources needed to reopen March 1, MCEA says

For the second time since Montgomery County schools closed 11 months ago, the local teachers union is pushing back on plans to reopen, this time calling the plan “irresponsible.”

Following an emergency meeting for thousands of members on Wednesday, the Montgomery County Education Association released a statement saying the MCPS reopening plan, approved unanimously on Tuesday, “fails to deliver on necessary safety measures for students and educators.”

“This is just the latest offense in a bungled effort to return students to school buildings,” the MCEA statement said. “… The current MCPS plan requires more space, more people, and more resources than are now available to successfully implement this planned reopening of school facilities.”

MCEA, which represents about 14,000 teachers, had similar concerns this summer, the first time the district was planning to reopen. The union issued a scathing statement, calling the plan “wholly inadequate,” sparking a daylong back-and-forth with the district, capped with a video from MCPS responding to MCEA’s statement line-by-line.

Within days, MCPS retreated from its reopening plan, and opted to stay fully virtual. School buildings have not reopened.

In recent weeks, union officials have said they did not foresee any major problems with the reopening plan when it was based on metrics looking at the spread of COVID-19, and that impact bargaining — the process of negotiating working conditions when buildings reopen — was going well.

But on Tuesday, school board members chose to no longer hinge students’ and staff members’ return to buildings on a specific set of COVID-19 metrics, and tensions flared.

Previously, any return would not happen until Montgomery County’s COVID-19 case rate was at or below 15 cases per 100,000 people and the test positivity rate was below 5%.

Last month, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan pressured school districts to offer in-person classes by March 1, indicating that the state no longer uses data metrics as a guide for reopening. Soon after, MCPS approved its latest plan, not tied to metrics.

The first group of MCPS students are scheduled to return to buildings on March 1, with more groups to follow March 15.

However, in a recent message to the community, MCPS acknowledged that its plans could change “should the present downward trend in (COVID-19) cases change.”

As of Thursday, the county was meeting one of the two previous MCPS benchmarks and approaching the other one. The case rate was 21.4 cases per 100,000 people and the test positivity rate was 3.8%, both at their lowest in months.

Still, MCEA argues that the school district is not prepared for the accelerated return.

An MCPS spokesperson was not immediately available for comment on Friday morning.

In its statement, MCEA also took issue with teachers returning to buildings before they are vaccinated.

“MCPS is refusing to acknowledge that the lack of available vaccines is preventing educators from receiving the protection they need, and exposing them to unnecessary risk of harm in the in-school setting,” MCEA wrote.

Neither private nor public school educators meet the criteria to be vaccinated at county-run sites yet.

They can, however, receive vaccines from some private providers or at state-run mass vaccination sites.

Most staff members who will return or who have been working in buildings already to hand out free meals or complete other essential work have not been vaccinated.

Last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said school reopenings should not depend on teachers being vaccinated first.

During a call with reporters on Thursday, Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said he does not “necessarily agree.”

He did not explicitly say he believes educators should be vaccinated before MCPS reopens, but said, “We need to do everything we can to provide protection to staff members going back into buildings.”

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, a former elementary school teacher, seconded the sentiment.

Elrich said he is “hopeful MCPS will make sure the teachers coming back to buildings first are able to get their vaccines.”

“I think it’s important,” Elrich said. “… I want them to do this as safely as possible.”

Across the country, the pushback from teachers unions on reopening plans have left many school districts unable to return to schools.

In Chicago, for example, a bitter and public fight between the local union and Chicago Public Schools spanned several weeks and thwarted reopening plans multiple times as the sides failed to negotiate an agreement.

The union approved an agreement on Tuesday, narrowly avoiding a strike.

In Montgomery County, unions are not legally allowed to go on strike. It was not immediately clear Friday morning what might happen if MCPS and MCEA do not reach an agreement about impact bargaining.

An MCPS spokeswoman on Thursday said she would need to ask others within the district.

An MCEA spokeswoman did not answer the question when asked. In an email Thursday, she simply wrote that an agreement has not been met.

In its statement on Thursday, MCEA wrote that it is “charting a course forward” and will share updates in “the coming days.”

A survey about how to respond to the reopening plan was sent to all union members on Thursday. A mandatory meeting of school building representatives is scheduled for Monday.

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