In one of his patented straight talk moments, Council Member Craig Rice has implored residents to wear masks and heed social distancing requirements if they want schools to open for in-person instruction. Rice said today, “If we cannot control community spread, if we can’t get folks to do what they need to do, we are not going to open back our schools. So let me just be very clear. By folks refusing to do the things that we know are going to lower community spread and keep the community safe, it then in turn forces us to keep our schools closed.”
Amen, Council Member. Video of Rice’s remarks appears below.
The post about a restaurant not requiring face masks was one of the top five most-read stories in the history of this blog. (That puts some perspective on the relative importance of politics!) Marilyn Balcombe and Sunil Dasgupta deserve congratulations for their excellent and widely read guest posts. Aside from those, the top posts generally reflect the top two stories of the month: MCPS’s reopening decision and the county’s ethics-challenged Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine.
I have been to South Lake ES before, and they have an amazing community who is passionate about improving their school. I have seen the community engage at every level of local government and I have sat next to them in Annapolis testifying for more construction funds. They did make it into the FY21-26 Capital Improvement Program (CIP), but had their project delayed due to scarcity of funds. The County Council was given the choice of keeping the Northwood HS project on time or keeping South Lake ES on schedule. Northwood HS is a school with higher rates of poverty and also has inadequate facilities. Hopefully, they will find a third way, and keep both important projects (and others) on time. When Walt Whitman HS’s addition was announced two years ago and stayed on schedule, some people FELT like it was inequitable. Whitman is in District 1 where the average Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS) rate, a proxy for poverty, is less than a quarter of any other district. But is our county’s spending actually inequitable? Has the wealthier part of the county gotten more attention?
A few months ago, I saw some analysis that over the last decade, District 1 (which includes Bethesda, Potomac, and Poolesville) had indeed received an outsized portion of major building projects like additions or new schools. But I noticed that major renovation projects were missing from the list. So I decided to dig into the CIPs over 10 years, from FY2011-FY2020. I only counted major school projects that finished in those years, or had a shovel in the ground. Too many scheduled projects get delayed, just like they did this year. Because the CIP uses one line item for all Major Capital Projects (major renovations and expansions,) I had to go to the state table in the CIP, where the county reports to the state what each project costs, and how much they are requesting from the state. All the data was available, but it was NOT easy to “see” unless you knew what to look for. So what did I find? Shockingly, District 1 had received twice the amount of money than three other districts over the 10 year period. But did they grow faster than the other parts of the county? The answer is no. Three other districts grew faster than District 1.
Total Dollars ($1000)
% of Total Dollars
Enroll- ment Growth
(not including special schools)
If this data had been easier to “see” would we have stood for the inequities that continued for a whole decade? If we had open data in MCPS, would it have taken me several weekends to compile all of the data from the online CIP books? Others have tried to point out the issues surrounding our planning, but it is frustratingly “hidden in plain sight” in PDFs. This is one of the reasons why BOE instructed MCPS to hire a contractor, WXY, to look at how we plan our distribution of approximately 166,000 students.
Instead of planning in an equitable fashion, every year the Squeaky Wheel gets the most attention. Currently, South Lake is squeaking, because that is what they need to do to be heard. In fact, community groups like Action in Montgomery have amplified their concerns. Many who have economic or racial privilege also have more resources available to their school, including monetary and political capital. (See the latest OLO report.) I know many advocates that have direct lines of communication with decision makers. I have learned from these amazing advocates throughout the years, but I argue that dollars should be spent based on the state of the facilities, not whether you have a savvy advocacy campaign. I do believe MCPS is moving in the right direction, but they need to build trust by doing the following.
1. First, move to Open Data as soon as possible. Even releasing their next CIP and appendices in a machine readable data format, as well as their typical “book” format would go a long way in building good will in the community.
2. Look at every CIP through an equity lens. This does not mean ignoring facilities in well off districts. All kids need a healthy building in order to learn. Remember that the wealthiest districts received significantly more attention over the last decade and this cannot continue. During the COVID crises, shifting resources to improving HVAC where possible would be a great strategy, and I understand that MCPS is looking at just that.
3. Next, make sure the Key Facility Indicators are accurate. They should guide the system to improve the schools that need it the most.
3. Use the WXY report data to guide the efficient AND equitable use of MCPS facilities.
4. And lastly, our County and State Delegation needs to make sure that more Federal and State dollars go to our school facilities which have been underfunded for the last decade. The County Council also needs to pass a Growth Policy that ensures that our developers continue to fund the impact (only their impact, not more) that they have on our school population. I want to make clear that I am writing this as an education advocate and not in any official capacity in which I serve. I have volunteered for several organizations, and because of that, I have seen MANY schools and I do know that MANY schools needed updating years ago, in all 5 districts. I sincerely hope that those schools get the improvements that are needed, but not because they are in a particular district, or could pull off a media campaign, but because they are indeed the most in need
Laura Stewart serves as the MCCPTA Vice President of Advocacy, Women’s Democratic Club Education Advocacy Subcommittee Chair, incoming At Large Board Member for Committee for Montgomery and a Democratic Precinct chair in District 18.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last night, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) held a town hall with its members to share its recent discussions with MCPS on a range of issues, including MCPS’s plan to reopen schools. MCEA just put out the press release below summarizing its views on the reopening plan.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY EDUCATORS CORRECT MISINFORMATION REGARDING PROPOSED SCHOOL REOPENINGS WITH SERIOUS CONCERNS OVER STUDENT AND COMMUNITY SAFETY
Summary of MCEA Position on Reopening
ROCKVILLE — The Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) plan to reopen schools is wholly inadequate to protect the health and safety of students and staff. Many questions about how to safely implement the plan remain unanswered and there are discrepancies between what MCPS leaders told the public during a July 15 virtual town hall, and what they are telling the teachers from the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) who are trying to work with MCPS to come up with a way to ensure student and staff safety.
Masking, social distancing, and enhanced cleaning are the three pillars on which the MCPS plan rests, and it fails in all three areas.
For example, MCPS is proposing supplying students and staff with two cloth masks for the entire school year. Disposable masks will be available if students or staff forget their mask or soil it, but only as long as supplies are available. The cloth masks must be cleaned after each use, but there is no way for teachers to determine whether a mask has been washed.
Mask wearing will be mandatory, but educators have no recourse beyond moral persuasion to enforce this requirement. MCPS says mask-wearing is a “wellness” issue and that teachers should stress to students that wearing a mask keeps everyone safer. If a child cannot be persuaded, MCPS suggests the teacher ask the school nurse or counselor for help, if one is available. MCPS has made clear this is not a “discipline” issue and that teachers should not send students to building administrators.
Students will eat lunch in their classrooms–unmasked. It is unclear who will monitor students during lunch, and teachers/students will be responsible for “sanitizing” the space after eating.
For social distancing, MCPS is requiring six feet between student desks in classrooms. MCPS has posted videos showing adults pretending to be students sitting in classrooms and lining up when they arrive at school, but MCEA representatives who have visited elementary schools to look at classroom set ups have yet to find one large enough to safely accommodate students, even if class sizes are halved, as MCPS proposes. Limited bus seating means schools will have to stagger arrival and departure times, further complicating social distancing. It is unclear how schools will safely conduct mandatory drills, including fire drills and those required for active shooter threats and inclement weather.
Enhanced cleaning and frequent hand washing also fall far short. Contrary to what MCPS has told the public, free-standing, hands-free sanitizer stations will not be available at school entrances because of their difficulty to obtain. Because no additional funds have been designated to beef up custodial staffing, teachers and students will be primarily responsible for wiping down surfaces between classes. This assumes adequate cleaning supplies will be available. Building services staff will clean “high contacts” areas, but given limited time, it is likely places like bathrooms will be cleaned just twice a day. A weekly “deep clean” on Wednesday does little to protect students and staff throughout the school day on Monday and Tuesday, or Thursday and Friday.
A plan replete with shortcomings cannot ensure the health and safety of students or staff. If MCPS leaders persist with this terribly flawed reopening, they will do so, leaving educators with an untenable choice: our jobs or our health and the health of the people we love.
By Sunil Dasgupta, candidate for Montgomery County Board of Education, At-large.
Students, families, and school staff are waiting anxiously as MCPS debates what school will look like in the fall. Who will return to school buildings, and when? How will transportation work? Will students and staff be able to choose virtual learning and instruction? There are infinite questions and no great options.
Plan A for the fall was to bring all students back into classrooms. Under normal circumstances, this would of course be the optimal plan, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) argued for the physical presence of students in schools as necessary for child development. But CDC’s 6-feet social distancing guidance requires each student and teacher have 36 sq ft of exclusive space while in school. Even using Parks and Recreation facilities, tented outdoors classrooms, or small self-contained pods, MCPS cannot make full time in-person instruction possible for all students.
Plan B is the hybrid model—part in-person and part online with shift attendance—which is reflected in the draft plan that MCPS released this week. This plan attempts to bring students and staff back into buildings while meeting CDC guidelines, but it raises questions about safety, risk, and reward. One high school English teacher pointed out that, under the draft plan, he would meet with his students in-person only six times in the fall. The potential benefit of the hybrid model does not seem worth the risk, and with a substantial number of students and staff opting for online instruction, a great deal of the burden of carrying forward instruction would remain online.
That leaves us with Plan C: online, virtual, distance learning only, at least for the fall semester. The last few months have shown that it is very difficult to provide high-quality distance learning. Even in a large, wealthy jurisdiction like Montgomery County, we see noticeable gaps in access, engagement, and continuity of learning. While online learning has been more manageable and accessible for some, many families are reporting confusion over scheduling, technology problems, lack of student engagement, and absence of learning. When combined with serious equity and access issues, the results have been far from satisfactory.
None of the plans are perfect. But only one plan is safe: Plan C. MCPS should stick with distance learning for the fall semester, and the school system should make the announcement as soon as possible so we can create the best Plan C possible.
We can provide additional training for teachers, set higher expectations for students, and create more engaging curricula. We can make concrete plans for technology troubleshooting and meeting the needs of students with special learning needs and English Language Learners. And we can give families time to plan for how to manage life once classes resume.
But we can only begin preparing for more equitable, better organized, and ultimately more powerful online learning experiences for our young people once the school system makes the call to go with the imperfect, yet safe Plan C. Waiting longer risks losing the vital prep and training time needed to get this right.
In a memo to Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Superintendent Jack Smith, County Executive Marc Elrich is asking MCPS to make operating budget cuts along with the rest of county government. Elrich also makes clear that the capital budget will have to be reduced. Elrich is not asking for a specific cut number yet but indicates that the county will have a clearer picture of its tax base by late August.
What is unclear is how any spending cuts to MCPS conform with state law. The county council recently funded MCPS at maintenance of effort, which is the minimum amount of local dollars allowed by the state. If the county wants to reduce MCPS below maintenance of effort, relevant state law will need to be addressed.