MCPS Virtual Conversation presents ‘Return to School’ framework
November 19, 2020
Montgomery County educators and officials held a virtual conversation on a potential returning to school framework on November 12. The event lasted 90 minutes, was conducted over Zoom, and was live-streamed on the Montgomery County Website and MCPSTV YouTube channel. The conversation featured a COVID-19 data presentation and addressed questions from the community about the recently released parent survey. The survey asks for opinions on returning children to a hybrid or in-person schooling model. Event speakers included Sarah Sirgo, Donna Redmond Jones, Janet Wilson, Essie McGuire, Scott Murphy, Peter Morgan, Derek Turner, Kevin Lowndes, Jennifer Webster, and Peter Moran.
The conversation began with an examination of county health metrics (see featured image). The health metric matrix was created using a combination of state, local, and federal guidance and data. Following CDC calculations, Montgomery County’s current rate of 233.6 new cases within the last two weeks is well out of the window for returning to in-person instruction at this time.
The survey, which was released earlier this week, featured two important questions: Firstly, “Would parents like their children to remain in all virtual environments for the end of the year?” or “Are parents interested in letting their children return for some form of in-person schooling?” and secondly, “Would the children need transportation?”
“The parents’ decision about what they would like for their children for semester two really drives our planning. So it’s really important that we hear from everyone,“ Donna Redmond Jones, director of the MCPS Office of School Support and Engagement, said.
The questionnaire is being released just now to gauge community interest and plan for the future. “We must both be cautious and ready to move forwards… to move forwards as soon as those metrics say we can and will be able to,” Essie McGuire, Associate Superintendent of Operations, said. “We started this planning back in the summertime… during this entire time we have been planning behind the scenes a variety of delivery options and doing a variety of design work deciding how we will phase in our students and who we will phase-in.”
Survey findings will be provided to individual school administrators and principals, who “know their kids best,” Peter Moran, Director of Learning, Achievement, and Administration, said. According to extensive federal research, the use of only one model resulted in many challenges. “Our school communities are different, the needs of students are different, the things students are learning are different,” Moran said. Parents are guaranteed to know second-semester plans by the early part of January.
Priority populations include students in career or technology programs, special education students, students in primary grades, and students in transition periods, such as sixth graders and ninth graders, and twelfth graders. “When we think about high school we [can monitor] student grades, [but] we have to know if our students are on track for graduation working from our seniors backwards,” Associate Superintendent Janet Wilson said. “But [students in] fifth to sixth grade and eighth to ninth grades who have not met their teachers yet is [also] a real consideration… there’s still that important piece that our ninth graders know who their teachers are.”
Career and technology programs are expected to be opened for in-person learning on January 12 because students need to be on site to complete assessments. “Seniors need real life experiences before they cross that stage,” Scott Murphy, director of the Department of Secondary Curriculum and Districtwide Programs, said.
Speakers reassured parents that students in magnet programs or immersion programs would remain enrolled regardless of their response on the survey. There would be no guarantee of students maintaining the same teacher, but continuity would be a priority.
In the next segment of the conversation, McGuire noted that in-person schooling with coronavirus measures would be significantly different from previous years. “Students got really comfortable with 9 a.m. start times from high school all the way down [in our virtual setting, but] in a regular year part of the reason we have a staggered bus time is because we have to use all of our buses at all of the levels,” McGuire said. “We did not have enough buses to take all of our students to school at the same time… so we will have to go back to those staggered bell times, and we certainly can’t guarantee what those bell times will be.”
The reduced capacity of school buses and staggered arrival times would most likely result in longer bus rides. In the classrooms, students would be expected to wear masks and keep a minimum of 6 feet away from one another wherever possible to reduce the spread within buildings. This would limit learning spaces to no more than 50% capacity, with somewhere between 10-15 students in each individual classroom.
“[With my] experience from giving the SAT three times- [rejecting masks has] never happened. Students knew and it has become the norm and expectations were clear,” said Murphy, in response to an audience question about disciplinary actions for lack of mask compliance.
Students will be able to eat distanced outdoors, in the classroom, or in larger communal spaces depending on the school. “We know students will have to eat and will have to have their masks off,” Derek Turner, Chief of Engagement, Innovation and Operations, said. “[The focus is] risk mitigation, and not risk elimination.”
The county has also purchased materials to sanitize buses between routes. County officials plan to keep a variety of cleaning supplies in the classroom area, with a focus on regularly disinfecting high touch areas that include doorknobs and desks.
Other topics of discussion included vaccines and the policy for discovering COVID cases. Educators urged parents to vaccinate their children if possible, specifically for the flu. In closing notes, Wilson urged parents to complete the preference survey. “We need this time to plan and we really need to hear from everyone,” Wilson said.
“One thing I want our families to know is we are working very hard to make [school] a safe environment for our students and staff. We’ve done a lot of research to see what other districts and schools have done… but it’s inherently a risk when [students] come back into the building,” Kevin Lowndes, Associate Superintendent of the Office of Special Education, said. “We’re not chasing perfection, we’re chasing progress,” Moran said.