Montgomery Co. parents raise concerns about school system’s COVID response

Montgomery County Public Schools discarded its formula for deciding when the school system turns to virtual learning. Sunday, some parents, students and teachers urged the school system to not bring students back to class yet.

During a virtual town hall meeting, county councilmember Tom Hucker heard from dozens who claimed the school system’s response to surging COVID-19 cases fueled by the Omicron variant didn’t go far enough.

“I know dozens of families, including my own, who are frustrated that their lives are being put at risk,” said Elani, a freshman at Richard Montgomery High School, who called for virtual options for students.

Other students asked that classes not return in person yet, citing the more than 10,000 COVID-19 cases reported among students, teachers and school staff ahead of the first classes of 2022.

“Lunch is a COVID frenzy where everyone has to take off their mask,” said Zoe Cantor, who began a petition that expressed the concerns some groups have about a return to class.

The county’s interim superintendent of schools, Monifa McKnight, apologized Sunday to the school community, saying the school system could have done a better job communicating COVID issues and the system’s response to them.

“I apologize for any stress this caused our staff, students, and community members,” McKnight said. “The health and well-being of our students and staff remain our top priority.”

She announced MCPS will be providing every student with KN-95 masks in the next two weeks, and rapid test kits will also be given out to students and staff.

“We continue to believe that in-person learning is the best way to meet the educational, social, and emotional needs of our students and will continue to prioritize keeping our school buildings open,” McKnight said.

While decisions about whether in-person classes should continue, or what virtual learning options are available for students fall to the school system, many during the town hall called on the several lawmakers listening in to push the school system to rethink its current plan.

The request ranged from a systemwide return to virtual learning for several weeks to a mandate that students be required to test negative on a COVID-19 test before returning to class.

Several teachers also expressed concerns about staff shortages and told stories of students being gathered together so they could be supervised.

“The school created a COVID breeding ground by placing all of the students in the cafeteria,” said Megan Fitzharris, a music teacher at Briggs Chaney Middle School.

There were also calls for virtual options for students who are too concerned to return to class while COVID cases are up. A special-education teacher and mother of a sixth-grader who only went by Cheryl during the meeting, said many of her students are already being kept home by parents.

“Students will lose ground with no virtual option … and teachers will be unable to catch students up,” she said.

Parent Nicole Brown urged against closing all schools due to the spike in cases, saying that she believed “school closure” is the biggest risk facing students today.

“I believe that healthy kids and staff should be in school,” Brown said.

During the town hall, the majority of parents who spoke did call for a pause to the return to class for students. The mother of an eighth-grader said with so many people sick, the school system needs to go virtual for two weeks.

“Let everybody get better and then let everybody go back,” she said.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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