Category Archives: COVID-19

Hogan Overturns MoCo Closure of Private Schools

By Adam Pagnucco.

Minutes ago, Governor Larry Hogan issued an amended executive order preventing political subdivisions from closing or modifying the operations of schools. The governor issued this statement:

The recovery plan for Maryland public schools stresses local flexibility within the parameters set by state officials. Over the last several weeks, school boards and superintendents made their own decisions about how and when to reopen public schools, after consultation with state and local health officials.

Private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity and flexibility to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines. The blanket closure mandate imposed by Montgomery County was overly broad and inconsistent with the powers intended to be delegated to the county health officer.

To be clear, Maryland’s recovery continues to be based on a flexible, community-based approach that follows science, not politics. As long as schools develop safe and detailed plans that follow CDC and state guidelines, they should be empowered to do what’s best for their community.

I want to thank all the parents, students, and school administrators who have spoken out in recent days about this important issue.

The language of the governor’s amended executive order states at I.(e):

If a political subdivision determines that doing so is necessary and reasonable to save lives or prevent exposure to COVID-19, the political subdivision is hereby authorized to issue Orders that are more restrictive than this Order (“Local Orders”):

i. requiring any businesses, organizations, establishments, or facilities (except schools) to close or modify their operations; and/or

ii. requiring individuals to remain indoors or to refrain from congregating.

Share

Friedson Asks for Answers on Private School Shutdown

By Adam Pagnucco.

District 1 County Council Member Andrew Friedson has sent the letter below to county health officer Travis Gayles asking a series of questions about the county’s shutdown of private schools for in-person instruction, which happened on Friday. Friedson’s district includes Bethesda, Cabin John, Chevy Chase, Garrett Park, Glen Echo, North Bethesda, Poolesville, Potomac and part of Kensington.

*****

August 3, 2020

Travis A. Gayles, M.D., Ph.D.
Health Officer, Montgomery County
401 Hungerford Drive, 5th Floor
Rockville, MD 20850

Dr. Gayles,

As I am sure you are aware, the health order you issued late Friday, July 31 prohibiting independent schools from reopening for in-person instruction has been met with a great deal of anger, frustration, and confusion among our residents. This order caught many independent school leaders and families by surprise, including many who have spent the last several months preparing to open based on CDC and state guidelines. Understandably, it has generated countless questions conveyed to me and my office over the weekend.

While I recognize that not everyone will agree with all of the difficult decisions you must make as our County’s Public Health Officer during this pandemic, our residents do deserve clear, logical, and consistent rationales for those decisions, along with timely and transparent answers to their questions. In that spirit, I am requesting that you answer the following questions for our residents in a thorough, fact-based, and timely manner, consistent with previous reopening decisions made to date:

1. What specific health metrics and epidemiological data were used to make the determination that independent schools cannot safely open until at least October 1? Are there specific, objective public health metrics that must be met before in-person instruction can take place?

2. Why are neighboring jurisdictions with similar transmission rates allowing independent schools to open? Are they basing their decisions on different data? Do they assess the risk differently?

3. Have you consulted with neighboring jurisdictions to determine why they’ve reached a different conclusion than our health department?

4. Have you consulted with the State Health Department to discuss this decision and the factors upon which it is based?

5. Are there specific, unique features of a school setting that carry significant additional risk of transmission compared to other businesses such as child care providers, restaurants, barbers, retailers and offices that are able to operate on a limited basis with health directives such as social distancing, use of facial masks and other PPE, and cleaning protocols?

6. Rather than a wholesale prohibition of in-class instruction, did you and your team consider whether independent and religiously affiliated schools should be provided a set of health and safety guidelines for reopening like other sectors in our community? Are there no health directives and safety measures that can be employed in order for schools to open as many businesses have been able to? If not, why?

7. Were independent schools directly involved in the decision-making process to determine how they had planned to follow the CDC and state guidelines and whether there were additional measures that could be employed to further mitigate transmission risk? Were schools afforded an opportunity to provide individualized reopening plans for your consideration?

8. I understand that some day-care centers will operate “kindergarten support” classes. Children who would otherwise be in public school kindergarten will go to these classes at a day-care center, and the day-care center will assist the children with the online kindergarten instruction, and also provide aftercare. If that can be done safely, is it possible for a private school to safely operate a kindergarten class, provided it has the same density of children and adults and uses the same safety standards as a day-care center operating a “kindergarten support” class?

Because these decisions are not easy and the available information regarding this disease is rapidly evolving, it is even more critical that public health directives be made as clearly, consistently, and transparently as possible. If we ask the community to follow the rules, we must ensure that they have faith in the process that determined the rules, as well as the policies themselves. Thank you in advance for your prompt response to these questions.

Sincerely,
Andrew Friedson
Councilmember, District 1

CC: Marc Elrich, County Executive
Dr. Earl Stoddard, Director, Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security
Sidney Katz, President, County Council
Gabe Albornoz, Chair, Health and Human Services Committee, County Council

Share

MoCo Shuts Down Private Schools for In-Person Instruction

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles has issued an order shutting down private schools for in-person instruction. The order includes but is not limited to “all private pay schools, schools affiliated with religious institutions, or schools that are otherwise considered to be independent schools.” The order as currently drafted applies through October 1, 2020. Gayles cites State Executive Order 20-07-29-01 as giving him the authority to institute the shutdown. The order prohibits private schools from “physically reopening for in-person instruction” but is silent on virtual instruction.

The order from Gayles is reprinted below.

Share

Explaining County COVID-19 Infection Rates

What factors are linked to high COVID-19 infection rates in Maryland counties? Is it race? Is it income? Is it population density? Is it political affiliation? Today, I look at the impact of all of these factors both individually and collectively.

One word of caution: forming conclusions about individuals from countywide data is perilous. Nevertheless, it’s a useful exercise to gain a greater sense of what is happening in our state.

The Big Impact of Race and Ethnicity

Let’s start with race. The share of non-Hispanic Whites is negatively related to COVID-19 case rates. Increasing the White share of the population by 10% is associated with a decrease in 190 COVID-19 cases per 100k.

Conversely, there are strong positive relationships between the share of Non-Hispanic Blacks and Hispanics with higher COVID-19 case rates. Here are the charts:

A model that controls for both simultaneously indicates that increasing the Black share of the population by 10% is associated with an increase of 125 COVID-19 cases per 100k. For Latinos, a similar increase is associated with an astonishing increase of 470 cases per 100k.

There is no significant positive or negative relationship between the share of non-Hispanic Asians and COVID-19 rates. Bear in mind that only Howard and Montgomery Counties are more than 7% Asian.

Population and Density

The following chart shows the relationship between the number of people in a county and COVID-19 rates. Interestingly, the relationship is stronger than if one uses population density instead.

However, if one controls for the share of Blacks and Latinos, neither total population nor density has a statistically significant effect on COVID-19 case rates across Maryland counties.

Trumpiness Doesn’t Matter

Voting for President Trump in 2016 might be associated with lower infection rates because his voters were overwhelmingly white and also are more likely to live in low population, rural areas. At the same time, Trump’s followers are more likely to believe coronavirus is a hoax and to shun lifesaving behaviors, like wearing masks.

An initial look at the simple relationship between Trumpiness and COVID-19 rates suggests that the racial effect predominates:

Conducting a multivariate analysis that controls for multiple factors simultaneously confirms this conclusion. Once one controls for race, there is no statistically significant relationship between the share of the vote for Trump in 2016 and COVID-19 case rates. Of course, one should be careful at extrapolating from this county level data to the impact of individual-level behaviors related to voting choices.

I also looked at median household income. As I expected, this didn’t matter much. I don’t set much store in this result, however, because median household income varies far less across large aggregate units like counties than between individuals and often has little impact in these sorts of analyses in my experience.

One more caveat: these are the relationships based on the data as of today. As infection spreads to different parts of the state–portions of the Eastern Shore are getting hit now–they could change over time.

Share

Wear Your Masks Correctly, People!

By Adam Pagnucco.

Earlier this month, the county asked residents about mask usage through Survey Monkey and found that a big majority of respondents reported seeing improper wearing of masks, especially failure to cover the nose. The county’s press release is reprinted below.

Results of Montgomery County Survey on Masks Show Improper and Ineffective Usage

For Immediate Release: Friday, July 24, 2020

More than 2,700 people responded to a recent flash survey on masks and while an overwhelming majority of respondents (91 percent) think wearing a mask is “very important to slow down the spread of COVID-19,” 78 percent of respondents also reported seeing many people wearing masks improperly, such as exposing the nose.

The short survey, conducted via Survey Monkey earlier this month, included five questions and was shared through the County’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, WhatsApp and Nextdoor.

More than half the respondents (61 percent) said they are seeing people wear masks inside buildings and outside where social distancing is not possible and they would like to see more people comply.

“We were pleased to see the response to our survey, while not scientific, indicates people care about keeping themselves and others safe,” said County Executive Marc Elrich. “Wearing a mask, maintaining physical distancing, washing hands and getting tested are the keys to our ability to slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

When asked to describe how people were wearing masks improperly, 66 percent of respondents said they have observed others wearing masks covering only their mouth and chin. Respondents said most mask violations were observed at local businesses (39 percent) and parks, trails and playgrounds (34 percent).

“It is important for everyone to comply with the health order—wearing a mask, and wearing it properly is one of the best tools we have to fighting COVID-19,” said County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles. “A mask should be fitted properly and cover the mouth and nose in order to protect others. Just covering one’s mouth doesn’t get the job done.”

For more information about face coverings, visit the County’s COVID-19 Information Portal.

For the latest COVID-19 updates, visit the County’s COVID-19 website and follow Montgomery County on Facebook @MontgomeryCountyInfo and Twitter @MontgomeryCoMD.

Put the “count” in Montgomery County! Be sure to complete the Census online, by phone, or by ail. It’s safe, confidential, easy, and important. #2020Census #EveryoneCountsMCMD

Share

MCPS to Go Virtual Only Through January

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has announced that it will offer virtual learning only through January 29, 2021. Their community update is reprinted below.

*****

MCPS To Provide Virtual-Only Learning for First Semester

Plan to be reassessed in November 2020 for Second Semester

Dear Parents, Guardians, Students and Staff:

I am writing to provide an important update on our Fall 2020 recovery plans. MCPS has been working closely with county and state health officials on the potential reopening of schools. Yesterday (July 20), we received additional guidance from Dr. Travis Gayles, county health officer, in which he shared that “based upon the current state of surveillance and epidemiological data, I would not recommend in-person instruction for students inside school buildings at this time. I recommend investing in a virtual instruction model until, at earliest, the completion of the first quarter in November, with consideration for virtual instruction through the first semester.” As I have shared previously, our plan has always envisioned starting in a virtual-only model. However, given this updated guidance, the safest choice for our district is to remain in a virtual-only instructional model through the first semester—January 29, 2021; or until state and local health officials determine conditions in our county allow for students to return safely after the first semester. This decision includes the cancellation of all fall and winter sports. Working with Dr. Gayles and county elected officials, we will reassess at the end of the first quarter (November 9, 2020) to determine if we are able to implement a phased blended model in the second semester (beginning February 1, 2021). We will continue to engage with our community as we continue to navigate this incredibly complex situation.

We anticipate that Governor Larry Hogan and Dr. Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools, will also provide an update on the state’s recovery plan for schools this week. We will review their guidance and make all necessary adjustments to align our plans.

We continue to explore creative ways to support students receiving special services and families with significant challenges in accessing curriculum through a virtual model. We also know that this decision to extend virtual instruction will significantly impact the work schedules of many parents in our county. We are seeking the ability to allow buildings to remain open in a limited capacity for essential purposes, including meal service; to support access to technology and other materials; and for use by some child care providers.

On August 6, 2020, we will provide an updated plan to the Board of Education. This update will reflect adjustments stemming from changes in guidance from local health officials and the important feedback we’ve received from students, staff and the community. The Board of Education will vote on this plan at that time.

We are building on what we learned during the spring to provide a robust and dynamic virtual learning experience for our students. Our staff is being provided additional professional development to enhance their instructional abilities in a virtual model; we have put systems in place to ensure all students have access to digital devices and access to the internet when they are away from school buildings; and we are building in additional time for student support and learning opportunities. We are also streamlining digital tools and platforms to make it easier for our students, staff and families to engage in teaching and learning.

Our students are the heart of what we do and why we exist. There is no doubt in my mind that we all want what’s best for students. This decision is incredibly difficult as we know how much students need school for their academic success and social-emotional well-being. We take the immense responsibility of ensuring staff and student safety, educating our students and creating opportunities for all seriously. Thank you for your continued support and collaboration as we work together to meet the needs of our students, staff and families.

Sincerely,
Jack R. Smith, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Schools

Share

MCEA President Responds to MCPS Video

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) President Chris Lloyd has released the video below as a message to MCEA members in reaction to the MCPS video on the school system’s reopening plan. MCEA had previously said that the reopening plan was “wholly inadequate” to protect the health of students and employees.

Lloyd covers a lot of ground in this video, relating concerns of worried teachers and their family members, asking which metrics will be used to judge school safety and asking what will happen if (when) students and employees contract the virus at school and pass away. He says that school preparation can be funded with a share of the federal CARES Act money received by the county but notes that the school system has not requested it. He implores teachers not to leave their jobs. And he describes this feedback from MCEA members on MCPS’s video.

Some of you told me you felt the video on Friday from our employer was condescending. That it was gaslighting. That it made you feel small. And angry. That it was another example of our employer using tactics to try and divide us from our community. That it was an attempt to union bust. The union isn’t me and it isn’t you. It is all of us as a part of the largest labor union in the country with 3 million members.

On top of all of this, MCPS and MCEA have not finalized a new collective bargaining agreement as of this writing.

Share

Reopening Decisions by School District So Far

By Adam Pagnucco.

Editor’s note: this post has been updated to include Washington County, Maryland.

In the aftermath of discussion about MCPS’s reopening plans, let’s take a look at what other districts are planning. Bear in mind that jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia are bound by state guidance and they have had different coronavirus infection rates. Below is a summary of the approaches taken by 18 school districts in the Washington-Baltimore region.

Opening with online only as first phase (7 districts)

Arlington County: Schools will begin on September 8 with full-time distance learning. Parents may choose a hybrid model combining distance learning and physical school, which will begin implementation in October.

Charles County: Schools will start with all virtual learning “with a goal of transitioning to Phase 2 as quickly as possible. Phase 2 would include in-person instruction for special populations of students.”

Harford County: Distance learning only for the first semester. A limited number of spaces in physical schools will be offered to students to help them access online instruction.

Howard County: Distance learning only through January 28.

Prince George’s County: Distance learning only for the first two quarters of the school year.

Prince William County: The school year will begin with distance learning only for the first quarter (September 8 through October 30). Afterwards, “the goal will be to transition to a 50% capacity model in the second quarter, with the option for students to remain virtual.”

Washington County: “Washington County Public Schools (WCPS) students will begin the 2020-2021 school year with all students in grades pre-k through 12 engaged in distance learning. The Board of Education unanimously agreed to adopt a model of full distance learning beginning August 31, 2020 and continuing until it is safe for students to physically return to school.”

Preliminary plan with online only as first phase (3 districts)

Calvert County: “On July 16th, the Board of Education of Calvert County Public Schools decided to continue the discussion of how to open the 2020-2021 school year. To ensure the safety of staff and students during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board is in favor of starting the year online for all students. Board members recognize, however, that barriers exist for some students to learn online. The Board will continue to accept public comments about meeting the needs of students with limited or no internet connectivity or other challenges through July 22nd.”

Carroll County: Reopening will occur in three sequential phases: enhanced virtual/distance learning for all students, hybrid model combining distance learning and some in-person instruction and a traditional model. Parents may opt for online only for the entire fall semester.

Montgomery County: Schools will begin with distance learning and eventually phase in some in-person instruction. The teachers union and MCPS management have shared their perspectives on the plan.

Opening with choice model (1 district)

Fairfax County: Parents have been given a choice between full-time distance learning and a hybrid option with at least two days in physical schools.

Preliminary plan with hybrid or choice model (2 districts)

District of Columbia: According to a preliminary plan, parents may choose between all online learning or a hybrid of in-person and online. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said a final plan will be announced on July 31.

Frederick County: A draft plan suggests that most schools will open with a hybrid model in which students will be divided into two cohorts and alternate between two days in physical school and three days in virtual learning.

No plan yet (5 districts)

Alexandria City: The district is still in its planning process and does not yet have a draft plan.

Anne Arundel County: The district is still in its planning process and does not yet have a draft plan.

Baltimore City: The district is preparing a preliminary plan for consideration by the school board on July 28.

Baltimore County: No decision has been made.

Loudoun County: No plan has yet been released.

So far, no public school district in the region has said it will reopen with 100% traditional in-person instruction.

Share

MCPS Releases “Just the Facts” Video

By Adam Pagnucco.

MCPS has released the video below elaborating on its school reopening plan. The video was no doubt prompted by the Montgomery County Education Association’s statement that MCPS’s reopening was “wholly inadequate” in protecting students and staff.

Among the points made by MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith and some of his top staff are:

School will start on August 31 and be “all virtual.” Smith said, “When we phase it will depend on our health circumstances in our community and in our state.” Right now, the timing of when phases of in-school learning will begin is unknown.

Smith commented on the needs of students for physical school. He said, “We know that we have literally thousands and thousands of students who need to be in school if at all possible. We have students who are in poverty. We have students who have learning disabilities. We have students who are requiring English. We have students who really benefit from the structure, from their physical, social and psychological well-being. We have students who want the most rigorous experiences. In fact, every single student needs school. So we want to be ready to phase in when we’re able to come back in based on the health situation of our community. And when we are ready, we want to be able to start.”

The issue of discipline related to mask wearing came up. Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight gave this example: “We definitely are not going to discipline a six year old child who needs to take a break or struggles with adjusting to this new way of keeping themselves safe. But what we are going to do is teach them about it, teach them about the importance of it and how it contributes to their environment in a responsible way and help them and make note of things they struggle with wearing it so we can figure out ways to support them.” Nothing in the discussion contradicted MCEA’s statement that violating mask requirements would not result in discipline.

Communications Director Derek Turner said, “The next rumor I’ve heard is that only teachers and students are going to be cleaning classrooms.” (Note: MCEA said that “teachers and students will be primarily responsible for wiping down surfaces between classes” but did not say that they would be the only ones cleaning classrooms.) Associate Superintendent Essie McGuire said that building services workers would have more cleaning responsibilities than before but that teachers and students would have a role too. She said, “When we think about teachers and students, we’re really thinking about those personal spaces, the kind of in-the-moment, day-to-day cleaning that may just go with incidental use of your room or your personal space.”

McGuire said that MCPS has spent millions on personal protective equipment (PPE) and will continue to. When asked by Turner about whether just two masks would be provided for the entire year to teachers and students (as MCEA asserted), McGuire discussed how inventories of masks and other PPE would be available at schools but did not otherwise directly address the two-mask question.

McGuire said that different kinds of hand sanitizer dispensers would be available in different places inside schools. However, she did not directly contradict MCEA’s statement that “free-standing, hands-free sanitizer stations will not be available at school entrances because of their difficulty to obtain.”

McGuire said that there will not be a hard standard of 15 kids in a classroom. Classrooms will be evaluated based on their size and social distancing requirements to determine their appropriate student capacity. The actual number of students per classroom will vary.

On the degree of choice given to MCPS employees about whether they would be required to return to physical schools, Smith quoted a statement made by MCEA President Chris Lloyd in Bethesda Beat. Smith said:

I think this quote by Mr. Lloyd, the MCEA president, at the end of June, beginning of July in the Bethesda Beat really kind of sums up where we are. This is the quote. Lloyd said, “Many older teachers and those who are immune-compromised have told him they might not be comfortable returning to school buildings in the fall. But Lloyd said Superintendent Jack Smith has been clear with union leaders that teachers and students will have the flexibility to decide if they need to work remotely.” And so really that’s that issue of need and flexibility and choice, how all that works together. So we have to have a process for that. So we’re going to continue to work with individual employees and with individual families about what works for different families based on their needs and we have to be ready when we can phase in again to know who can and will work in schools, who will need to be in the virtual program and how that will continue to work together. So we’re going to continue this conversation in the next week, in the next month, in the next couple of months as we move forward and make plans for how to re-phase, reenter schools in a phased approach when we’re able to do so.

Smith ended the video with this statement.

This is a very, very tough situation. No one would have chosen this. Not one person would choose this. And we are all touched and affected by it. Every one of us, every person listening to me today has been touched in many ways by this. We must continue to work together on behalf of everyone to do the best job we can to make things work for our community, for our students, for our staff and the entire public education structure. It’s critically important for our future that we are able to continue forward with public education in the way that it serves our communities.

Amen to that, Dr. Smith.

Share