Montgomery County outlines return-to-school plans

Students could begin returning to school in Montgomery County, Maryland, in phases, starting Jan.12.

The Montgomery County Board of Education outlined its plans Friday, including bringing small groups of students back, with English language learners and those in special education programs returning first.

“I’m appreciative that we’ll be sticking our toe in the water to bring back children,” board member Pat O’Neill said. 

O’Neill noted the phases would span from mid-January until the start of the second semester. There will be some disappointed parents that the school district is not “just flinging open the doors — Boom! — all of the sudden,” she said, but “obviously that is not possible now.”

Under the phased-in plan, high school juniors and seniors would be among the last group of students to return to schools. Board member Rebecca Smondrowski asked if that could be changed, as “11th- and 12th-graders can really benefit the most from returning sooner than later,” she said.

Board member Brenda Wolff also asked about health-screening protocols that families would have to undergo under the plan.

Wolff asked Essie McGuire, Montgomery County school system’s associate superintendent for operations, if parents will be responsible for providing information regarding “temperature, symptoms” and other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.


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After McGuire said yes, there was a brief pause before Wolff asked, “You believe that’s the most reliable way to get that information?”

Wolff explained her skepticism, saying that those on the board who have worked in education “for long periods of time” have probably had instances where a child was sent to school with some aspirin and told to call if the student felt worse during the school day. 

“I’m always a little skeptical on relying on the parent’s assertion that the child’s OK,” Wolff said.

McGuire said schools would be supplied with personal protective equipment, including gloves, masks and hand sanitizer. The school system “will absolutely not be in a rationing situation” when it comes to equipment and that it has a robust supply.

McGuire said transportation is also really critical, as capacity on school buses will need to be limited to provide for safe social distancing.

Initially, the school system’s plan was to have children in every other bus seat. McGuire said that it would allow just 11 students to a bus, under 25% of their normal capacity. Other school districts in the region have planned to have one student in every bus seat, allowing 22 students per bus, she said.

“Certainly, that’s still a reduced capacity,” said McGuire, noting that the school system would have to see how many parents would opt for school bus transportation.

If the course of the coronavirus spread can be contained as students return to school during January, the system could have all students back in class by February. However, it would depend on a set of health metrics, including the average daily increase of cases over a two-week period and the 14-day average of cases per 100,000.

School district employees will get training and access to safety resources in a “COVID-19 employee portal.” School officials confirm that 115 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus since March. There are 25 employees currently under quarantine.

According to Seth Adams, a director at the Department of Facilities Management, an evaluation of filter and ventilation systems in every school has been completed. Equipment systems to improve ventilation in schools are being tested, with some rejected because they were too noisy.

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