Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland will begin opening doors to in-person learning starting March 1.
The transition will begin with vocational students and some students with special needs. Then larger groups of students will be phased back by grade level starting on March 15.
The county school board approved the move unanimously on Tuesday.
No in-person classes will be held on Wednesdays. Some in-person learning will rotate on various schedules. Schools will contact families with details that apply to each child. Each school will hold a virtual orientation by March 15 for all students, regardless of when their group returns.
About 40% of families have indicated that they want their students to return to classrooms. Families that previously opted for in-person learning can maintain their virtual learning status if they want or return to virtual learning at any time.
“A family can reach out directly to their school if they wish to discuss a change,” Associate Superintendent James P. Koutsos said. “However, moving from virtual to in-person will only be able to be accommodated on a space-available basis and may take time to discern.”
When students and educators return to classrooms, teachers and support staff will collectively focus on students learning virtually and those who may be split up in different classrooms because of physical-distancing requirements.
“Some will be on virtual, and we can’t have more than 10 or 11 students typically in a classroom, physical space, together,” Superintendent Jack Smith said.
Principals, administrators and staff at individual schools will determine specific plans and schedules based on subject content, the age of the students and their developmental levels.
A large part of the return to in-person learning involves the logistics of ensuring everyone stays safe.
Smith said hiring began last November for when students returned to classrooms. However, that return ended up being postponed when COVID-19 cases surged. There is a need for staff to monitor lunch times and bathrooms, to greet and dismiss buses, to run errands to the front office, or to go to the school’s front door.
“Because you don’t let the outsider come into the closed system of the school anymore to bring a backpack or a missing book,” Smith noted.
Smith said typical safety protocols surrounding the hiring of staff are being followed.
In addition to following strict COVID-19-related safety measures — such as wearing masks, social distancing and rigorous cleaning — schools will stock personal protective equipment for students who forget to bring them or lose them.
“Knowing very well — my son who may lose about four coats throughout the winter season — it will be the same for masks. Students will lose them and not have them, so we have to be able to accommodate those situations,” Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight said.
“That’s why we ordered the extra PPE and are having them available in the spaces where students are interacting, so that they can have them readily available.”
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Reactions to Montgomery County’s decision
Wylea Chase, a parent, said she was not totally pleased with the decision to bring students back.
She said the metrics for reopening have not been met and not all have been vaccinated.
“And so it’s become an order situation,” Chase said, adding that although the numbers are dropping, they haven’t fallen to the originally-stated metrics for reopening.
Chase said the decision does not make sense, as virtual learning will still take place.
“I don’t understand why we can’t wait until everyone, all the teachers and all the staff have been vaccinated. And I’m not even talking about the children. I’m talking about the teachers and staff,” Chase said.
She said she trusts the teachers and principal at her school to come up with a plan they think is best for her school community that will keep students as safe as possible.
But the current plan to bring students back in March seems like an “unworkable situation all the way around.”
“I don’t understand why we can’t just stay virtual until vaccinations come through. Maybe because then Governor Hogan will be truly held accountable,” Chase said.
Becky Mayo, another parent, is worried particularly about the air exchange per hour indoors, in addition to social distancing and the lack of push to wait until teachers are vaccinated.
Mayo said she wished the school system had spent more time, energy and money trying to make the school buildings safer for those who want to go back.
“And I think if we can limit the numbers, to teachers who want to be there, and the kids who really need to be there … then we stand a better chance to make it safer for those who do need and want to be in the buildings,” Mayo said.
Teacher Margret Bower said she had many concerns with students returning to classrooms, in particular, that by the time it happens, not all staff may have received the vaccine yet.
Bower is also alarmed about proposals for teachers to move between classrooms and students and how the return of students to classrooms would affect how they meet the needs of students who are still learning virtually, which at her school is about 60% of students.
“And we know that distance learning is wonderful for some students, and it’s not so wonderful for other students. But I think one of the messages that’s getting lost is schools physically have been closed, but children in Montgomery County are still being educated,” Bower said.
Bower wants people to understand that teachers have been teaching since last March, and they want to be back in the school building with their students.
“We know there’s no substitute for face-to-face, but we really want to do it safely,” Bower said. “I think we just need to figure out why are we rushing to do this so quickly when vaccines are on the horizon.”
WTOP’s Luke Lukert and Abigail Constantino contributed to this report.