‘Take a pause’ — Montgomery Co. executive urges school system to offer more options for virtual learning

County Executive Marc Elrich told members of the county’s delegation to Annapolis that he is urging the Montgomery County, Maryland, school system’s leaders to “take a pause.”

In the Friday morning meeting, Elrich addressed the concerns from state lawmakers such as Maryland House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke, who told Elrich and County Council President Gabe Albornoz, “The system’s in crisis and we’re failing our students in Montgomery County — all of us.”

Elrich himself characterized the situation in schools, where a shortage of bus drivers and substitute teachers has caused interruptions across the system, as “way too chaotic.”

Luedtke, who taught in Montgomery County’s public school system, added, “Just in the last 24 hours, some of my former colleagues shared with me words I’ve never heard from teachers,” and said one of the most striking comments compared the current situation to something out of “a zombie movie.”

Some of the concerns from state lawmakers centered around communications from the school system. Sen. Craig Zucker said, “There’s a complete and utter breakdown in communication. I mean, I’m not even sure what the positivity rate is right now in Montgomery County Public Schools, because I know as a parent, I haven’t gotten any communication.”

Elrich told lawmakers that officials from the county’s Department of Health and Human Services were meeting with school officials Friday to recommend shifting to providing an option that would allow “synchronous learning,” in which schools would remain open and parents who want to keep their children home could do so.

County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard told WTOP that calling for a pause is not the same as calling for schools to close or to have all students learn virtually.

Stoddard said the bus driver shortage could be alleviated somewhat under the proposed pause, “because you wouldn’t need to bus as many students.” He added that the teacher and substitute shortage could be addressed by the plan, because teachers who are placed on quarantine or who are “asymptomatically ill” could deliver lessons from home.

MCPS reaction

Christopher Cram, the spokesman for the school system, said in an email, “System leadership will have to review the comments of the county executive and are always happy to collaborate to make the best decisions for our students.”

Cram added, “The pandemic has forced our school system to operate under extraordinary circumstances” and that the school system is “committed to facing and working through these challenges for our students and staff.”

Lawmakers on school staff shortages

While Elrich pointed out that the county doesn’t have direct control over school operations because the school system is a state entity, Luedtke pressed Elrich on bus driver, teacher and school staff shortages. Luedtke asked, “What has the county done to support the system in resolving those staffing shortages?”

Elrich said he’d offered to assist the school system with staffing, and that his preliminary budget includes $131 million over and above a state funding formula that provides a floor for school spending.

Luedtke told Elrich that the problem of staffing shortages can’t be blamed entirely on the coronavirus pandemic. He added, “We can’t pretend, either, that MCPS makes its decisions about what it pays its employees entirely on its own. They depend on the county for funding.”

Luedtke said he’s planning on submitting a bill to mandate salaries in MCPS that would amount to a “living wage” in Montgomery County. Luedtke also said there is legislation to boost salaries for educational support positions, such as bus drivers, paraeducators, food service and custodial staff.

“I do think we all need to avoid blaming one institution or another,” Luedtke said. “This is all hands on deck.”

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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