Photo courtesy of WCHS administration
When the Montgomery County Board of Education confirmed that students would return to in-person school in March, there were a lot of questions- most notably, surrounding how schools would open safely. To answer the questions that many students, parents and staff had, WCHS’ administration held a Zoom webinar to discuss their plan.
The Feb. 16 meeting and correlated slideshow, which took place a week after the Board’s decision to reopen, had nearly 400 attendees. It featured Principal Brandice Heckert and other school administrators explaining how WCHS would reopen.
First off, students will arrive and leave in different phases. Those using school buses- which is only around 300 students according to Heckert- will arrive by 7:45 a.m., the same time that school started in prior years. The buses will have the same safety requirements as in the building.
“We’ve only had about 300 people request transportation across all grade levels,” Heckert said. “If we think about the rotational part, that’ll be about half of those students would be in at one time. So we’re only really at about 100 kids total on any given day that need bus transportation.”
Students who arrive by private transportation need to be in the building by 9 a.m. For those in the building before the start of that day’s first or fifth period, there will be focused student intervention- which allows students to prepare for the day and get help from teachers. To limit the number of places to clean and ensure safety, only certain doors will be open.
“Right now we’re looking at the Bulldog Lobby doors, the main entrance doors and the doors off Victory Lane,” Heckert said. “But as more students come back we might find that we need to open another set of doors so that we don’t have a backup of students outside.”
Once students are inside the building, they will be required to wear masks, except for when eating at lunch, and practice social distancing.
“If you’re not eating the expectation is the mask is on,” Heckert said. “Each classroom is set up so that everybody is front-facing, sitting at least a minimum six feet apart, and in some classes, especially the first couple ones, the classroom will only have one or two kids in them.”
The current plan is for students in Phase 1.1- those in the Special Education and Career and Technology Programs- to eat lunch in their classrooms; students in Phase 1.2- which includes seniors- will eat in the cafeteria and auxiliary gym. Students will be at least six feet apart and will either bring their own lunch or buy from the school- meaning students will not be allowed to get food delivered to them or leave the school to pick it up, unlike prior years.
“So right now we have enough seats set up in the cafeteria and the auxiliary gym for 1.2, and then as we phase in 2.1 and 2.2 we’ll make some adjustments,” Heckert said. “I’m hoping to have the auditorium back. Because right now, there’s some construction going on in there so we can’t use it. In addition, we may have to rotate the lunches. And so it may be that when we get more students in it might be half the school eats the first 35 minutes, the second half eats the second 35 minutes.”
Cleaning the school will be a priority. It will be done daily with disinfectants and other measures that prevent the spread of COVID-19. Heckert explained the schedule and how it will work during weeks where students attend classes for four days in a row.
“At the end of the school day and then also over the weekend, we’re going to have our weekend cleaners in as well,” Heckert said. “The data [supports people] to take a break from being around people and for the buildings to be clean. It also has to function as a check-in day.”
Some of the other highlights of the plan include hallways being divided into two-way hallways, bathrooms being limited to two users at a time and the hiring of classroom monitors who will help make sure it is safe in certain locations.
“[Monitors] could be used for lunch, hallway coverage [or] classroom coverage- a whole range of items,” Heckert said. “For us, I’m looking for those monitors who provide hallway coverage. I’m not looking to put them in classrooms.”
The plan was based on the school system’s guidelines on how to reopen, in addition to guidance from medical experts. WCHS is also working with its feeder schools, Cabin John Middle School and Herbert Hoover Middle School, to ensure the system is on the same page.
One wild card in the reopening plan is the return of teachers. Many are members of the Montgomery County Education Association, which is calling for teachers to not return because they do not believe it is safe. A majority also voted that they had “no confidence” in the plan.
“MCPS approved a reopening plan that MCEA found requires ‘more space, more people, and more resources than are now available,’ and has inadequate safety measures for students and educators. As a result, the association took a vote of no confidence,” the union said in a Feb. 19 press release. “MCEA members demand that MCPS adhere to CDC guidelines regarding the physical reopening of school buildings, implement a contact tracing and testing program, and provide all employees the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before a return.”
The school system met the union’s request on contract tracing and testing. At the Feb. 23 Board of Education meeting, they laid out their plan on safety, which included working to vaccinate teachers, testing students and staff and contract tracing if someone tests positive.
“MCPS has spent more than $15 million to purchase Personal Protective Equipment (masks, sanitizer, gloves, etc.) and make significant improvements to HVAC and safety systems,” the update said. “This includes filter upgrades and installing air cleaner units (65,000 filters have been changed and 5,000 air cleaners have been installed to support existing systems).”
Board members have always emphasized that reopening would be done safely, with practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“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 in an interview with the Churchill Observer last month.
Anxiety about the return to school is presumably high in parents, students and staff. From worries of missing out on certain activities done in prior school years to getting sick with COVID-19, the situation accompanies a great deal of stress. Heckert hopes to calm that with reassurance that those returning to school will be safe and not miss out.
“Rightfully so there’s a lot of anxious staff,” Heckert said. “I’ve been back in the building since September and so I know it’s a little bit daunting to imagine coming back every day, I think for staff and students. We’re really just juggling with the anxiety as a staff, and also anxiety for parents and recognizing it’s not going to look the same as it did on March 12 or even March 13.”
While the school will look different than in prior years, one thing will remain the same: students. Heckert is looking forward to seeing them, along with staff, in the building again.
“There are families in our community and they feel strongly that we should have been open before this,” Heckert said. “And then there are families in our community that are really excited that their child may have an opportunity to come back. So it’s a range of emotions because it’s not like for any of us we can say, ‘Oh, you know, remember the last time this happened and everything was fine.’ But, I’m looking forward to staff and students coming back.”