Montgomery County parents locked in debate over reopening classrooms

A fierce debate is underway in Montgomery County over when to restore in-person learning in public schools. While some parents are cheering Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s call for all school districts to offer some in-person learning by March, other parents want to wait.

A coalition of parents and educators, including scientists and public health professionals, said it has written a letter to Hogan, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, School Superintendent Jack Smith and others urging a delay of in-person learning until the county meets certain public health metrics. It also wants to wait two weeks after all teachers and school staff who requested vaccinations have received their second dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

Pam Bruce-Staskal, a microbiologist and mom to a Seneca Valley High School senior, said she wants her son back in the classroom, but only when it’s safe to do so. She said there is a risk of contracting COVID-19 in the classroom because people share space for an extended period of time.

“You’re talking about people being in the same confined space for hours and hours at a time … a few minutes, no big deal, but when you’re sitting next to the same people for every single day, if one of them is infected, whether they’re symptomatic or not, they’re going to be shedding virus and you’re exposed to them for a long period of time, [which] increases the amount of virus to which you’re exposed,” said Bruce-Staskal, who, in the past, wrote safety protocols for laboratories handling infectious agents.

Other parents who argue that their children are losing academic ground and suffering physical and emotional effects from remote learning have expressed their support for the governor, who said last week that he wants “every single Maryland student” to have the opportunity for some in-person learning starting March 1.

But Bruce-Staskal said there are no quick or easy answers to the question of restoring in-person learning.

She said that masks, social distancing and hand washing can indeed help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but she insisted that the key to reopening school buildings are improved health metrics, including declines in community transmission rates and the vaccination of teachers and staff.

“I think that we have to wait for the community transmission to drop. I think we need to vaccinate our teachers,” Bruce-Staskal said.

“If we can vaccinate our teachers, if we can minimize the number of children in one room, if we can demand masks by everyone who is physically capable of doing it. … If you can do the combination of the distancing, the masking, the vaccines and if you can increase air flow, I think we can open our schools safely when community transmission gets under control,” she said. “But it’s not under control today.”

The Montgomery County Public Schools system said it’s assessing the governor’s call and is closely collaborating with state and county public health officials and leaders.

Dick Uliano

Whether anchoring the news inside the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center or reporting from the scene in Maryland, Virginia or the District, Dick Uliano is always looking for the stories that really impact people's lives.

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