Montgomery County Board of Education votes to re-open schools in March

The+main+enterance+at+Winston+Churchill+High+School+in+October+2020.+WCHS%2C+like+all+Montgomery+County+Public+Schools%2C+has+been+closed+since+Mar.+13%2C+2020.

Photo by Jeremy Fredricks

The main enterance at Winston Churchill High School in October 2020. WCHS, like all Montgomery County Public Schools, has been closed since Mar. 13, 2020.

By Jeremy Fredricks, Copy Editor

Lunches have been at home. Sports have been virtual. Classes have been taken over Zoom. It has been nearly one year since students in Montgomery County, Md. have been to school, due to COVID-19. Montgomery County Public Schools has had all school buildings closed since Mar. 13, 2020, but now, there is hope students may return before the one-year mark is eclipsed.

At their Feb. 9 meeting, every member of the Montgomery County Board of Education voted to reopen school buildings. Schools will reopen on Mar. 1 with about 730 students, according to the Bethesda Magazine, in the Special Education and Career and Technical Education Programs. 

If that goes successfully, elementary school students and other members of Phase 1.1 will go back by the latest date of Mar. 15. The Board has waited to make these moves until recently, determining they could now proceed with a plan that puts students and staff in a safer situation. 

“Safety is and has always been the driving factor in when we can return to school. All measures identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and our state and local health partners will be followed,” Brenda Wolff, the President of the Montgomery County Board of Education, said.

Students in the Special Education and Career and Technical Education Programs will be going back first; MCPS deemed that they have the greatest need for immediate in-person instruction because of difficulties faced with virtual learning. 

“The current phased approach prioritizes younger students, special needs students, and career focused students. Any order of return needs to serve students most in need of in-person instruction,” Wolff said. “Many of our special needs students are struggling without the in-person experience and our career-focused students need that hands-on work.”

Students who return will be social distancing from each other and wearing masks. There is an option for students to stay home if they choose to do so; they can also switch from all-virtual to hybrid or vice-versa. 

If everything goes successfully for Phase 1.1, students in Phase 1.2 will go back by Apr. 6. That group includes high school seniors. Phase 2.1, which includes freshmen and juniors, will return by Apr. 19. Sophomores, who are part of Phase 2.2, will return by Apr. 26- meaning schools plan to be open for all students before May begins. Students will rotate which weeks they are in, with every Wednesday being all-virtual. MCPS’s full plan, The “MCPS Spring 2021: Recovery of Education Guide,” which includes over 50 pages of logistics, instructions, goals and more, can be viewed at that link. 

“All plans have to be done in the best manner possible with thorough consideration for student and staff safety,” Wolff said. “We will apply anything learned from early adoption of in-person learning to future phases.”

There has been growing pressure on the county to reopen schools, with Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) wanting all school districts to begin reopening by Mar. 1, threatening to take legal action if schools are not open by that date. Montgomery County Public Schools have yielded to Hogan, deciding to go back on that day. President Joe Biden also wanted schools to reopen by Apr. 30, his hundredth day in office. Despite external pressures, the board has attempted to focus on prioritizing the safety of students and staff, rather than politics. 

“We certainly appreciate the input of our elected leaders but these decisions are best and more appropriately decided by examining local conditions,” Wolff said. “The Governor of Maryland has made it clear that students need to be back for, at least, some in-person learning. We want the students to be back in school too, but safety for students and staff must be considered first.”

To return safely, there will need to be updated HVAC systems in buildings, required social distancing and personal protection equipment- commonly known as PPE. The Montgomery County Education Association, a union made up of more than 14,000 teachers, has included these actions as necessary before their members will return to teach in schools. 

“Getting students back in school is our main priority as well, but we need to take the health and safety of both educators and students into consideration first. In good conscience, we cannot send folks back into school buildings without ensuring that all necessary safety protocols are in place,” Chris Lloyd, the union’s President, said in a statement before the board confirmed schools would reopen. “As much as we are concerned about learning loss in the interim, we are more concerned about the loss of life.”

“The Montgomery County Education Association is deeply troubled by the irresponsible reopening plan approved Tuesday by the MCPS Board of Education,” the union said in a Feb. 12 statement. “This is just the latest offense in a bungled effort to return students to school buildings. Central office administration continues to provide everchanging guidelines and parameters, forcing local school staff to constantly pivot and waste precious time and energy revising school-specific plans.”

The school system says it is working to achieve the union’s plans, recently updating the HVAC systems in schools and purchasing more than $1.5 million worth of PPE.

“It’s clear from both the meetings and the subsequent updates that those are all things that are being done and are being addressed by the school system,” Gboyinde Onijala of the school system’s Department of Communications said. “I don’t think anything they’ve asked for has been denied.”

Scientific data has shown that schools can be reopened safely. An August-November 2020 study from scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that spread in schools is lower than the spread in the community. The cases in Montgomery County, Md. have also dropped in recent weeks. 

Vaccines – a game-changer for some families – were not even included in the reasoning to reopen. A majority of staff members have not received a dose yet, but the school system is working with John Hopkins University to vaccinate teachers.

“As you know, nationally, availability of vaccines is not at the level needed to vaccinate everyone at this time,” Wolff said. “We are working with our local health partners and Johns Hopkins University to vaccinate as many staff as possible, when doses are available. Staff are not required to be vaccinated, it is a personal decision.”

The biggest takeaway from Montgomery County Public Schools officials seems to be that a return deemed safe is the only return that would happen. The officials have adhered to science in the past and seem to want to continue that decision-making trend.  

“Safety is and has always been the driving factor in when we can return to school,” Wolff said. “All measures identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and our state and local health partners will be followed. Physical distancing, hand hygiene, face coverings…will need to be part of the in-person experience.”