Montgomery County moves ahead with school reopening plans — with caveats

Montgomery County’s Board of Education is continuing with its plan to eventually reopen schools — depending on the spread of the coronavirus — and will take a final vote on its reopening plans in a meeting Dec. 3.

In a Monday morning briefing on Zoom, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith said the plans for reopening will also be influenced by the results of parent surveys. Parents are being asked if they want to have their children return for a combination of in-person and virtual instruction, or stick with a virtual instruction-only plan.

“We understand this is an incredibly difficult decision to make, and there are a tremendous number of unknowns,” Smith said.

Asked about hiring needs to staff schools once they are opened, Smith said, “The ratio of students to staff will be determined by the number of students that come back. One school system I spoke to recently had more staff that wanted to return to a facility than students.”

Noting that Montgomery County continues to see a spike in its 14-day case rate average — now at 19.9 per 100,000 — Smith said getting children back into schools will be dependent on the data related to COVID-19.

“If we can come back in January, we will,” he said.

Smith responded to criticism that the school system’s back-to-school metrics are too stringent.

He said the goal has been to make sure that conditions allow for a safe transition to in-person instruction. “Several school systems that tried to use somewhat lower metrics have now had to close across the nation,” Smith said.

He added, though, that Montgomery County could also find itself having to close down schools, depending on the course of the spread of the coronavirus.

Now that two vaccine makers have announced they’ve succeeded in creating a COVID-19 vaccine, Smith was asked if students would be required to be vaccinated once the vaccines are available. Smith said that would be up to state health and education agencies.

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“We have a lot of those requirements in place now, just not for COVID-19, for other kinds of vaccinations,” Smith said.

Many parents have urged Montgomery County schools to reopen, citing the difficulty their children are having with the virtual learning format. “Learning loss,” the decline of student performance, is something school officials say they are tracking now that the first marking period has ended.

Janet Wilson, director of Teaching, Learning and Schools, said that supports for struggling students, including Saturday sessions, are being designed. Help would be made available “to all of our students, quite frankly, who we find did not get off to a great start for the first nine weeks in this virtual space.”

Among the groups getting additional supports, Wilson said, are ninth-graders who are transitioning into high school. There will also be a focus on 11th- and 12th-graders. “And we’re going to be looking at that first through the lens of who’s on track to graduate,” Wilson said.

Asked about the decision to make sure that 11th- and 12th-graders would be among the first group of students to return, Wilson said making sure that students have the credits they need to graduate was important.

There was also a recognition that high school seniors were missing out on the things that make that final year of high school so special.

“With the right conditions, we want to begin to phase those students in so that they can have the opportunity to celebrate many of the aspects that our senior classes do across our 25 high schools,” she said.

Smith was also asked about a proposed Montgomery County bill to eliminate the county’s school resource officer, or SRO program. He told reporters, “I don’t really have an opinion about the legislation — that’s the county government’s venue — I really don’t.”

Smith noted that there’s a state law that requires police in school buildings. That law — the Safe To Learn Act — was passed in 2018 and requires that schools across Maryland either have a student resource officer in place, or have “adequate law enforcement coverage” for schools in a given school district.

“I think there have been lots of benefits” to having police officers in school buildings, said Smith, “and there have been lots of causes for concern, and that’s why we’re having this conversation.”

On Tuesday, Montgomery County Council members Will Jawando and Hans Riemer will formally introduce Bill 46-20, a measure that would prohibit Montgomery County police from “deploying school resource officers in schools.”

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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