Montgomery County school board votes on virtual learning, cancellation of sports season

The Montgomery County, Maryland, Board of Education voted in favor of virtual-only learning for the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year.

The vote came after hours of presentations of proposed schedules for elementary, middle and high schools.

Thursday night’s vote formalizes the announcement made by Superintendent Dr. Jack Smith on July 21.

The vote also contained language that cancels fall and winter sports.

As proposals for physical education and sports programs were described, board member Karla Silvestre asked for more details.

“What does that typical session look like? So you bring everyone together, you build community, you say go run a lap and then come back to your iPhone?” Silvestre asked.

Jeff Sullivan, director of Systemwide Athletics for Montgomery County schools, answered, “With the physical piece, we’re really limited in the live sessions to conditioning,” with exercises being the foundation of the session.

But Sullivan said athletic directors from across the system were working on plans for more engagement for sports programs.

“We’d envisioned chalk talks, with film instruction and breaking down of a game,” he said.

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Jeanette Dixon, a board member who spent 30 years as a teacher and later as a middle school principal, said the school system is entering a historic era.

“This will be the first significant change in terms of how we teach children, deliver instruction, probably since the late 1800s,” Dixon said.

Dixon said she was concerned with the instruction model that was presented to the board, with schedules that attempt to replicate in-school bell schedules.

Dixon said she has gotten a lot of input of how challenging teaching and learning can be when lessons are carried out over Zoom. Noting the school board has been meeting using the same virtual platform, Dixon said after several hours of board discussion, “I have to say today has been very taxing, sitting here and listening to the presentations.”

During the public comment segment of the meeting, David King, a senior at Walter Johnson High School, challenged the plan to use a standard grading system to evaluate student performance in the coming school year.

“That’s just not fair,” King said. There would likely be students or their family members who would catch the coronavirus, he said. “They’re going to watch their relatives catch this virus and get sick, maybe even watch their relatives die.”

King added that many students live in environments that are just not conducive to learning, and there are students who depend on the structure of the school day to succeed.

While King said the pass-fail option that was offered in the spring was not ideal, he suggested that some other way of assessing students should be developed.

“I won’t pretend that I know the needs and workings of this county better than you do. Nor will I pretend that I have the expertise or resources to determine what a more equitable system may be. But you do,” King said.

Christina Hartman said her 4-year-old daughter Charlotte is enrolled in PEP, the Preschool Education Program.

Hartman said her daughter has “a litany of diagnoses,” including autism and global developmental delay that make the virtual learning model especially challenging.

Hartman explained Charlotte gets a variety of services from physical therapy to occupational therapy and that she needs a specially-designed chair to help support her so she can focus on her lessons.

“Virtual therapies are not working, and in fact we are seeing regression,” Hartman said.

She noted that New York State has come up with a plan to provide in-person learning for special education students.

“There is no reason we can’t do the same in Montgomery County,” Hartman said.

Associate Superintendent Essie McGuire said that 23 child care providers would be operating in the county’s school buildings. “And those have been authorized through our work with MSDE, the Maryland State Department of Education,” she said.

Board member Rebecca Smondrowski wondered, if paid programming for children could be offered in the school system’s buildings, why small class instruction could not be offered for students.

“I’m becoming extremely concerned about the incredible division between the haves and the have-nots that’s being created,” Smondrowski said.

McGuire replied in part by saying, “What it comes down to is that we really just can’t inhabit any of our spaces in the way that we would like to and the way that we are accustomed to.”

She said during a typical school day, “We have transitions in hallways; we have entrances and exits; we have people coming and going and sharing core spaces” — situations that make keeping social distancing and reducing the spread of the coronavirus with a large school population a challenge.

The board’s vote on virtual learning for the first semester was unanimous.

Board President Shebra Evans wrapped up the session by telling her colleagues, “I hope all of our families continue to remain safe and healthy.”

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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