Montgomery Co. schools roll out new approach to live instruction for quarantined elementary students

Maryland’s largest public school district has begun approaching live instruction for elementary school students quarantined due to COVID-19 in a new way.

Montgomery County Public Schools started centralized live instruction for elementary school students quarantined due to COVID-19 on Friday, Oct. 1.

About 45% of the county’s elementary schools have decided to take part in the program, according to the school system.

“This means that instead of each individual school having to assign staff members to teach on a daily basis for large portions of the day, schools are taking turns, offering staff to teach students from across all participating schools,” said Sarah Sirgo, the school system’s director of learning, achievement and administration.

“On a given day, this means that students in individual quarantine log on to a central Zoom link that we provide, and they’re taught by one of the many talented staff among our participating schools,” she said.

The move is aimed at easing pressure on teachers amid a staffing shortage.

In addition, at Tuesday’s Montgomery County Board of Education meeting, board members voted unanimously to push back the deadline for MCPS employees to get required COVID-19 vaccinations.

Oct. 15 is the new deadline for staffers to get their first shot, and Nov. 15 is the deadline for employees to be fully vaccinated.

The move came in response to a number of MCPS employees not yet providing proof of vaccination.

‘Stretched beyond human capacity’

Presidents from three unions representing county education workers joined forces at the board meeting Tuesday to urge education officials to address a “significantly understaffed” school system that has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eighteen months into the health crisis, educators have been “stretched beyond human capacity,” said Christine Handy, president of the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals.

“Administrators are forced to become public health workers and contact tracers. All of this work is piled on top of our traditional duties and responsibilities,” Handy said.

“We are going above and beyond our part to support the evolving needs of our students and the school system. Our members are human beings, not robots without limits,” she said.

Jennifer Martin, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, called the situation a crisis. Besides the toll it is taking on educators, student literacy rates are dropping to alarming levels.

Martin said literacy readiness dropped 35% for second graders from the 2018-2019 school year to the 2020—2021 school year. Math readiness for fifth graders was down 25%, literacy for Black second graders was down 38% and Hispanic second graders suffered a 46% drop.

“Our students have suffered as a result of this pandemic,” she said. “We must provide individual support to help students catch up following COVID-19, but many permanent positions are still vacant and substitute teachers are scarce.”

Martin told board members teachers must be freed from lunch, recess and late bus duties.
“We need substitutes for classroom coverage when teachers become ill or are forced to quarantine,” she said.

Learning recovery is a priority for education workers, Martin said, but not even support staff have the resources they need to get the job done.

“Today, we three presidents choose to speak with one voice to bring attention to this crisis. Our membership has bent over backward for over a year and a half, we are about to break,” SEIU Local 500 President Pia Morrison said.

“Educators need to focus on helping our students heal from the trauma of the last two years, both emotionally and academically. We must focus on mitigating learning gaps caused by the pandemic.”

Glynis Kazanjian

Glynis Kazanjian has been a freelance writer covering Maryland politics and government on the local, state and federal levels for the last 11 years. Her work is published in Maryland Matters, the Baltimore Post Examiner, Bethesda Beat and Md. Reporter. She has also worked as a true crime researcher.

Matt Small

Matt joined WTOP News at the start of 2020, after contributing to Washington’s top news outlet as an Associated Press journalist for nearly 18 years.

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