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.