Montgomery County school board puts off vote on in-person instruction

The Montgomery County school board voted Thursday to delay the decision to phase in in-person instruction until their next meeting, on Dec. 15.

The plan would begin returning several categories of students, including Career and Technology Education students, to classrooms Jan. 12, and students in Phase One of the general population (special education students and those beginning kindergarten, middle school or high school) beginning Feb. 1.

While deliberating the question, the school board heard about how students have fared grade-wise under virtual instruction, the results to date of a survey of parents on whether they want their children to return to school buildings and more.

Learning, Achievement and Administration Director Dr. Peter Moran detailed the process: The parent preference survey was supposed to end Thursday but has been extended until Monday.

On Monday and Tuesday, each school will get a list of all their students, with the preferences of each family. The rest of the month, administrators will design in-person instruction plans, and the week of Jan. 4-8, parents will receive a detailed description of what partial in-person classes will look like for their child. They’ll have the next week to opt in or out.

Board member Lynne Harris emphasized, “We’re never going to be forcing anyone to come back for in-person instruction.”

As of Thursday, the education department said, nearly 109,000 parents had returned surveys, and the results were almost equally divided: 50.5% wanted their kids to begin partial in-person classes, while 49.5% wanted to stick with virtual learning.

All return to school buildings, however, is dependent on COVID-19 numbers, and right now, they’re not conducive: The department’s Derek Turner said that under Maryland health guidelines, in-person instruction can begin when the case rate is under 15 per 100,000 residents and the percentage of tests that come back positive is under 5%. The current rates are 28.1 and 5.3%.

Grades

The school board heard a presentation that showed that while some student were doing just fine in some subjects — perhaps even better — with virtual learning than in previous years, many were doing worse, with the usual divides of ethnicity and wealth sharpened by the new reality.

The survey compared this year’s sixth-graders with last year’s, and this year’s ninth- and 12th-grade students with their own marks from the previous year, and found that in most subjects, more A grades were earned by students this year, while more E grades were also handed out. The same patterns held true for students who were affected by poverty.

“We knew that gaps were going to get bigger,” Board member Rebecca Smondrowski said, “but these are huge.”

“Our kids are suffering so much from depression and isolation,” Board member Patricia O’Neill said. “There are some classes, like math and foreign language, that need to be taught every day.”

Dr. Janet Wilson, the chief of teaching, learning and schools, said that “We’ll be able to provide the supports” when students are back in schools.

Scott Murphy, the director of college and career readiness and districtwide programs, said that the administration had worked out guidance for the first marking period.

“We found that for many, many students,” he said, “it was too much.” There will be reductions in work assignments in the next marking period “just to relieve some of that pressure” for students and teachers alike. “We learn every day, every week, every month.”

Superintendent Dr. Jack Smith warned, “It’s not a binary.” Pointing at the areas where students are doing better than before, he said, “Let’s look at how that happened. I think we’re learning a lot in this difficult time.”

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