Tag Archives: COVID-19

Reopening Plans – MCPS is Behind

Guest column by Lynne Harris, Candidate for Montgomery County Board of Education At-Large.

Reopening schools – safely – is critical. As an MCPS teacher, parent, a nurse and a public health expert, I have been closely following public health guidance, evolving science around COVID, and the work of school systems all around the world that have opened during the pandemic. I’m disappointed that MCPS lags so far behind almost every school district in Maryland. Twenty of our state’s 24 school districts have begun bringing some students back. To prevent irreversible learning and opportunity loss, we need a public health compliant, student-focused plan to start providing some level of in-person instruction to students.

It’s critically important to have a CDC-compliant plan now to bring small groups of students into our schools, periodically. Those most in need of in-person instruction include students vulnerable to learning loss, struggling students, young learners, students with special needs, and students in hands-on CTE programs like mine. That plan needs to ensure that MCPS and the County Health Department are in continuous collaboration, and have a well-thought out and well-communicated plan to move back and forth between fully virtual and hybrid instruction as Montgomery County’s COVID numbers change. Some say that’s hard, but school systems all over are doing that now.

SCHOOLS ARE ALREADY OPEN!

Planning to reopen doesn’t’ require re-inventing the wheel. We can look at how school systems around the nation and the world are educating the next generation face-to-face during a global pandemic. Six of the nation’s ten largest school systems – some with hundreds of thousands more students than MCPS – have reopened. It’s not that MCPS can’t devise a safe plan, it’s that MCPS hasn’t yet created one.

To see how this can work safely, look no further than our own schools. They’re already in use. MCPS for-profit learning pods and low-cost equity hubs are currently operating in more than 60 schools. Private schools in Montgomery County are open too – here’s an interesting piece from Education Week written by a MoCo middle school teacher teaching at one of them.

REOPENING SAFELY

Almost every school system that has reopened devised a hybrid plan, with a mix of in-person and virtual learning. Planning starts by sharing information with communities and providing a firm date for staff and families to opt in or out of in-person instruction. That data is essential for planning – once a school system knows which staff and students will participate only virtually, then it can make school-specific plans for hybrid instruction.

Most school systems have started by bringing in the most vulnerable learners and early learners (mentioned above) first. They are at highest risk for irreversible learning loss. And pragmatically, it’s easier to devise a plan for pre-K and elementary schools, where most students are together in a single classroom – than for middle and high schools where students typically change classes four to eight times daily.

In school districts where partial reopening is working:

Masks are mandatory.

Students and staff can opt for virtual only instruction.

Health screenings are routine, with firm guidelines. Some are completed online daily before students and staff enter the building. Anyone with a COVID-19 exposure must notify the school and self-quarantine. Contact-tracing is handled quickly with health officials. Anyone who feels unwell stays home.

Common spaces are marked for social distancing and equipped with supplies for hand hygiene.

Arrival and dismissal procedures minimize crowding, utilizing as many entrance/exits as feasible so students and staff enter and leave from the exit nearest their classroom.

Groups of students remain together (cohort) throughout the school day – eating lunch together, taking handwashing breaks together, going outside together.

Enhanced hygiene and cleaning protocols include restrictions on multiple use items in classrooms, socially distanced classroom arrangements, and frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces.

One day per week, usually Wednesday, is virtual for everyone, allowing for deeper cleaning of spaces mid-week.

Staff, students and families know the plan for pivoting back and forth between hybrid and virtual instruction as community COVID numbers change, and understand how they will receive information about community COVID status and school operations.

MCPS’s work with our County Health Department should yield guidelines for safe operations and allow each of our 208 schools to create its own plan for space utilization. Every one of our schools is unique – in enrollment size, building size and layout, and the presence (or not) of special programs. All of those things matter in figuring out how to safely bring some students and staff back into classrooms, and how to safely and efficiently use school space and maintain social distancing.

FACTS VS. FEAR

I hear some people talk about MCPS reopening from a place of fear. That’s understandable – we’re living through a global pandemic. We need to temper fear and rhetoric with reality, knowledge and fact. Zero risk is impossible. Wherever people gather there is always the possibility for illness to spread. Think about it: have you traveled since March? Gone to a gathering of people that you don’t live with? Gone to the grocery store? Gone to a Farmers Market? If so, were conditions tightly controlled and health protocols rigidly observed? There’s always risk.

We have to look at creating a reopening plan through the lens of our purpose as a public school system. Our purpose is to educate students and support students and families. That means we have to look at what’s best for students, and the data is clear – virtual learning is NOT best for the majority of students. Some will suffer irreversible lifetime consequences if we can’t resume some level of in-person instruction.

MCPS is behind schools and learning hubs in our district, most of the systems in our state, and many across our nation and the world. Planning for reopening requires robust collaboration – and it needs to begin now. If none of us are seeing, hearing or learning about that planning, then MCPS is falling even further behind.

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Is the County Playing Favorites Among Small Businesses?

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC) is the county’s economic development authority. It is a 501(c)(3) whose board members are nominated by the county executive and confirmed by the county council. Its operating budget comes mainly from county government. In June, MCEDC launched a business assistance initiative called 3R (Reopen Relaunch and Reimagine), which is funded by a combination of public and private money. One component of 3R is a new grant program for restaurants and retailers to prepare for the winter months. All companies in those sectors are encouraged to apply, but there’s a catch:

Getting the money depends in part on where in the county they are located.

The press release announcing the new program says:

As part of the public-private 3R (Reopen, Relaunch and Reimagine) Initiative, the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC) is now accepting grant applications from local restaurants and retailers for up to $5,000 to prepare for the upcoming holiday season and winter months. Eligible businesses can submit applications through November 5.

More information on the 3R Initiative Restaurant & Retail grant program and the application can be found here. The grant is an important component of MCEDC’s comprehensive year-long 3R Initiative designed to address the devastating impacts of the pandemic on the Montgomery County restaurant and retail industries.

Although any locally-owned restauranteur or retailer with fewer than 100 employees can apply for the grant, ten Montgomery County target corridors will be given priority for funding: Burtonsville/Briggs Chaney, Wheaton/Glenmont, White Oak, Aspen Hill, Germantown, Damascus, Takoma-Langley, Four Corners, Montgomery Hills, and Twinbrook/White Flint. These ten target corridors were selected with community input.

I asked MCEDC CEO Ben Wu to explain the organization’s rationale for geographic prioritization. He wrote the following to me:

Hi Adam, thanks for your message and your interest in the 3R Initiative.

As you know, the 3R Initiative supports our Montgomery County restaurant and retail sectors during this pandemic crisis. This $1 Million public-private partnership is designed as a year-long initiative, of which the grants are an important element, especially now with the start of the winter and holiday seasons. Future elements include a retail recovery guide, a countywide e-commerce marketplace and additional targeted investments in selected commercial corridors.

While the 3R Initiative has county-wide components such as the recovery guide and the e-commerce marketplace, it is also an economic development pilot project that seeks to bring together community stakeholders in hard-hit target corridors that might not have significant resources to search for collective solutions. These community stakeholders could include landlords, tenants, chambers of commerce, neighborhood associations, local support organizations, and the County Regional Service Centers. The 3R Initiative will work with the target corridors to help their restaurants and retail establishments develop strategies and access funding (through the 3R and/or Reopen Montgomery grants). At the program’s conclusion, depending on the pandemic, we would discuss the future of bringing the successes of this community-based model in the target corridors to potentially be recreated in other areas of the county.

Although any locally-owned restauranteur or retailer with fewer than 100 employees can apply for the grant, ten Montgomery County target corridors will be given priority for funding. These ten target corridors were selected with recommendations and input from the five County Regional Service Centers and the community. They were selected to be geographically and demographically diverse. Each of the Regional Service Center jurisdictions have at least one target corridor, many with more than one.

If you should have any further questions, let me know.

Best, Ben

Now let’s stipulate a few things up front. First, MoCo is an incredibly diverse jurisdiction in all kinds of ways. One can make a case that non-identical communities should not be treated identically. Second, MoCo holds events in locations all over the county that are not the same in kind or timing. There are county seminars, recreation programs, park programs, community events and all sorts of things that rotate across geography. Third, the county has different tax, fee and regulatory requirements depending on area, including parking fees, impact taxes, enterprise zones and of course master plans. We are too large and diverse to enact perfectly homogenous standards for everything the county does.

But in the case of COVID impact, businesses all over the county are suffering. Downtown Silver Spring lost Not Your Average Joe’s, Sergio’s and Eggspectation. Downtown Bethesda lost Flanagan’s Harp & Fiddle, George’s Chophouse and Le Vieux Logis. Gaithersburg lost Red Hot & Blue and Union Jack’s. Rockville lost Bagel City, Gumbo Ya Ya, La Tasca, Gordon Biersch and Urban Bar-B-Que. And yet most of these areas are not prioritized under MCEDC’s grant program. Small businesses in these areas may have to wait behind applicants from other areas and might not get grant money at all.

I don’t think MCEDC intends this, but their decision to steer money to some areas and away from others feeds one of the more toxic trends in MoCo politics: the suspicion that some parts of the county are treated better than others. There are tensions of east vs west (especially in issues connected to the schools). There is upcounty vs downcounty. (Folks ask why the Purple Line is being built but M-83, the upcounty highway, is not.) There is wealth vs less wealth. There are issues of racial equity which play out differently across MoCo. The current movement for nine council districts sprang from these tensions. The biggest single argument made by Nine Districts for MoCo is that the county council’s structure, especially its use of at-large members, steers resources away from some communities and towards others. MCEDC’s program is an unwitting but actual demonstration of this sort of thing.

So now two things will happen. First, conspiracy theorists residing in one of the non-prioritized areas will say, “Aha, we were right! The county really is trying to screw us!” Second, businesses in the largest non-prioritized areas will complain and say, “What about us?” The fact that the county’s largest business districts – Downtown Silver Spring, Downtown Bethesda, Downtown Rockville and Gaithersburg – are non-prioritized means that some serious clout could be brought to bear on this issue.

I think MCEDC is well intentioned. But I also think that this could turn into yet another headache that county leaders don’t need.

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Chamber to Executive: Get the Money Out Now

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce has issued the following statement on the county’s pace of distributing federal COVID assistance.

*****

Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce Statement on Montgomery County Executive’s Failure to Distribute $45.6M in Federal Relief

Tuesday’s Council briefing on the Coronavirus Relief Fund was deeply concerning. It was revealed that the County Executive has yet to spend $45.6 million of Federal Relief that was intended for immediate distribution to help our residents and businesses. The need for this funding is both dire and urgent. These communities are struggling at unprecedented levels during this public health emergency.

The County Council has established several programs to administer this relief funding for rent assistance, local businesses, child care, and more. Over the past six months our Chamber has been a supportive partner to the County to help the Council and the Executive by hosting many briefings for county business owners to learn about these programs and how to apply for relief. But there is growing concern expressed by both residents and business owners that their applications have either not been approved or they have not received a response to know the status of their applications.

The County Executive’s failure to distribute in a timely manner the CARES Act funding the County has already received severely inhibits our Chamber’s continued advocacy at the Federal level for additional county and state funds. Further, there is growing concern that the consequence of not distributing these funds as intended by December 31 means that the funds must be returned to the Federal government.

The strategy of waiting for the federal government to take further actions to provide future relief funding does not take into account the urgency for those in dire need of this relief NOW. The County Executive needs to lead our County by implementing emergency relief programs desperately needed by our residents and businesses during this crisis.

Our citizens and businesses can no longer wait. And the clock is ticking with the threat of losing this funding. MCCC implores the County Executive to end this delay immediately and distribute the $45.6 million.

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Elrich is Surprised at the Council. Um, What?

By Adam Pagnucco.

In the wake of the county council’s nuclear annihilation of the county’s federal COVID grant management, MCM carried this quote from County Executive Marc Elrich:

Following the meeting, which Elrich did not attend, he told Montgomery Community Media he was surprised at the council’s reaction. “There is no way the money goes out the door the next day.” Elrich explained that applications for funds must be gone through to make sure they meet the requirements. “This is the whole thing about allocating money,” he said, adding, “We are not holding money back.”

Um, whaaaaat???

Anyone who was surprised by the council’s response to the administration’s COVID grant challenges is not paying attention to them. This is only the latest episode in a loooooong line of council complaints about the executive branch. If I were to type them all out, my keyboard would break. There is nothing new here. And there is absolutely nothing surprising.

If one word can be used to describe the council’s sentiment towards Elrich, it is frustration. They are frustrated at the communication problems which have plagued the relationship for the entire term. They are frustrated at what they believe to be disorganization and a lack of an agenda (other than reacting to COVID) on the part of the administration. They are frustrated at Elrich’s management of the budget, including but not limited to his union contracts, a raid on retiree health care money last year, a hidden tax increase built into his budget this year, his failure to make any progress on restructuring government to save money and now his runaway COVID pay liability. But most of all they’re frustrated because they don’t think they have a willing or competent partner in the executive branch. For all their substantial powers over budget, legislation and land use, the council members have no authority to actually run the government themselves. And at this point, all of them think the government could be run better.

Many people look at the executive-council relationship through the prism of Elrich vs Council Member Hans Riemer. It’s true that Riemer (my former employer) is Elrich’s harshest and most frequent critic. But Riemer is something of an anomaly. His fifteen-year personal enmity with Elrich is not shared by any other sitting Council Member. Instead, look at Council Member Nancy Navarro, a cautious politician who is not given to public hysterics. She was at a loss for words at the tumultuous meeting about the grants on Tuesday. Look at Council Member Tom Hucker, who shares much of Elrich’s political base and is usually with him on progressive issues. None of that stopped Hucker from calling out Elrich. “Do you know where the county executive is?” Hucker asked Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno on Tuesday. Look at Council Member Will Jawando, another progressive who called the administration’s slowness on getting out federal assistance to renters and vulnerable residents “totally unacceptable.”

The body and facial language says it all.

But most of all, look at Council Member Gabe Albornoz. Nicknamed Mr. Rogers by his colleagues, Albornoz – like his mentor, Ike Leggett – is one of the most courteous and civil politicians I have ever met. Unlike his flashier freshman colleagues who have been quick to establish their political identities, Albornoz has set the same kind of slow, steady and workmanlike path to higher office that Leggett employed decades ago. But Albornoz has become increasingly vocal over his unhappiness with the administration in recent months. When Elrich joked that the council was “fact proof” on a hot mic, Albornoz said:

I did not find the County Executive’s comments on this video funny or amusing. In fact, I found them deeply troubling and the reaction of his senior officials disappointing. It’s also disappointing that the County Executive does not have a better understanding or command of this situation.

And with regards to the administration’s grant problems, Albornoz said:

I’m not confident at all that a month from now, when we have another update, that things will be significantly improved from where we are right now. And we’re setting everybody up for failure right now. And it’s not fair. It’s not fair to the county employees who are working diligently and around the clock to address these issues. We need stronger strategic leadership to be able to provide them with the support that they need to be able to get their jobs done. And I’m not seeing that and I’m not hearing that right now.

When Mr. Rogers grabs a shotgun, you know that all is not well in the neighborhood!

There have been seven MoCo executives since the office was established in 1970. None of Elrich’s predecessors have been so isolated and so regularly attacked by the council as Elrich has – and let’s remember that one of them (Jim Gleason) was a Republican. Politics is a team sport. No politician – not the president, not a governor, not a mayor, not a county executive – can totally go it alone and succeed from either a policy perspective or a political perspective. As amiable and astute as Rich Madaleno is, he can’t fix the relationship with the council all by himself. No one else can fix it. Only Elrich can.

And if he doesn’t, the “surprises” are going to keep coming.

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Council Nukes Elrich Over COVID Grants

By Adam Pagnucco.

Here are two things that almost everyone inside and outside of county government will agree on.

  1. The needs of residents and businesses for financial assistance to deal with the COVID crisis are immense.
  2. The $183 million in CARES Act grant money the county has been allocated by the federal government is helpful but is far from adequate to cover all the above needs.

With those two things said, representatives of the executive branch told the county council yesterday that they have not spent all the federal money appropriated by the council yet. And facing an end-of-year deadline to get the money out the door, there is now doubt as to whether the county will spend all of the federal money or forfeit some of it.

The council’s response to this was nothing short of nuclear.

The fissile material was prepared by council staff, whose memo to the council listed major appropriations of federal assistance and its actual expenditure by the executive branch. Six federal money appropriations mentioned in the memo and passed by the council months ago include:

Resolution 19-439: Emergency Assistance Relief Payment (EARP) Program
Adopted by council: 4/30/20
Funds appropriated by council: $5,000,000
Funds spent by executive branch: $0

Resolution 19-499: 3R Program (Reopen, Relaunch, Reimagine) – Economic Development
Adopted by council: 6/16/20
Funds appropriated by council: $500,000
Funds spent: $142,500 (Note: the county’s economic development corporation is responsible for spending this money.)

Resolution 19-506: Food Assistance/Security
Adopted by council: 6/23/20
Funds appropriated by council: $10,300,000
Funds spent by executive branch: $5,052,209

Resolution 19-523: Reopen Montgomery Initiative
Adopted by council: 7/7/20
Funds appropriated by council: $14,000,000
Funds spent by executive branch: $1,431,538

Resolution 19-535: Business Assistance for Medical and Dental Clinics
Adopted by council: 7/21/20
Funds appropriated by council: $3,000,000
Funds spent by executive branch: $0

Resolution 19-557: Rental Assistance and Eviction/Homelessness Prevention
Adopted by council: 7/28/20
Funds appropriated by council: $20,000,000
Funds spent by executive branch: $607,508

The above six appropriations total $52.8 million, of which the largest chunk ($20 million) is assistance to renters. Of that amount, the executive branch has spent $7,233,755. If the executive branch does not spend the remaining $45.6 million of federal money by December 31, it risks forfeiting the money.

That’s not all. Eight additional appropriations of federal money passed more recently by the council total $12.1 million, of which the executive branch has so far spent just $30,492. The two largest portions of this money are assistance to school age child care providers ($7.7 million) and assistance to distressed, affordable common ownership communities ($2 million). If this money is not spent by December 31, it might also be forfeited.

What’s the problem? First, the county just can’t spray checks around; it has to design the assistance programs, publicize them to potential recipients, process the applications and distribute the funds. Those things take staff and time. Second and more seriously, the county has had problems complying with FEMA paperwork requirements to get reimbursed. The process is nightmarish and time-consuming with FEMA changing the rules at least once (so far). County homeland security director Earl Stoddard told the council that the county had obtained just $20,000(!) in reimbursement from FEMA so far and that took more than two weeks and dozens of staff hours to process. Stoddard and Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno made no defense of the feds and were clearly frustrated.

None of this mollified the council, who proceeded to nuke the executive branch from orbit. Here are just four quotes from MANY angry statements by council members.

Council Member Andrew Friedson
This is a really frustrating conversation and clearly there are a lot more questions than answers. Some of that is understandable when in the midst of a crisis and there are a lot more questions. We don’t know what the future will hold, we don’t know what this virus will do, we don’t know what the impact on our community will be, we can’t control what the federal government… and how they will respond. But the idea that our residents and our businesses are struggling more than they ever have and are more vulnerable than they’ve ever been, when the needs are as challenging as they currently are, with an economic crisis and a public health emergency, that our issue right now is not whether or not we will run out of money too quickly, but whether or not the clock will run out before these programs will have been able to help the businesses, help the residents, help the vulnerable members of our community who desperately need it. And I can’t tell you how frustrating that is for me. I believe it’s frustrating similarly for colleagues and I can’t imagine how frustrating that is for the 1.1 million residents who are desperately trying to get through the most challenging time in our lifetimes.

Council Member Nancy Navarro
For that list of special appropriations that we started, some of them, all the way back in April, the amount of money that has not been spent translates into residents not receiving that assistance. Residents who we interact with on a daily basis that I know I have said, “Oh no, we have this program, we have that program,” we all did, all these different places and interviews and social media, pushing all this out and I keep getting feedback that, “Well no, we have not really been able to access this and we have not received that,” thinking OK, we’ll keep working on it. So number one, I’m just super disappointed that so many of these amounts, these special appropriations, these funds that are specifically to address the needs of some of the most vulnerable people in the county, and when I see how little has been spent, I just don’t even know what to say…

There is no excuse for the fact that so much of this money has not been out there.

Council Member Gabe Albornoz
I’m not confident at all that a month from now, when we have another update, that things will be significantly improved from where we are right now. And we’re setting everybody up for failure right now. And it’s not fair. It’s not fair to the county employees who are working diligently and around the clock to address these issues. We need stronger strategic leadership to be able to provide them with the support that they need to be able to get their jobs done. And I’m not seeing that and I’m not hearing that right now.

Council Member Will Jawando
The thing that is totally unacceptable to me is that we can’t get money out of the door that we’ve appropriated for rent and for food and for emergency assistance. So we just have to do better on that.

Council Members also called out County Executive Marc Elrich directly.

Navarro
I apologize to you, Dr. Stoddard, because this is not directed at you, because you’re not the executive. And I will say, the executive should be here talking to us about what is happening because this is really, really critical.

Council Member Tom Hucker
[To Madaleno] Do you know where the county executive is? I would just expect the county executive to be coming in and making this presentation. This is not one, this is like five or six of the most important issues facing the county. It’s hard enough to tell our constituents, “We don’t have money to keep your business open, we don’t have money to keep you in your apartment,” but it’s heartbreaking to tell them, “We have the money, we appropriated it, and it’s in a bank account, we just haven’t given it to you yet. And we may not be able to.” And I would just think, if there would be one thing he’d be on top of, it’s this. I don’t want to be unfair to him, I’m happy to tell him that himself, but I’m a little shocked that he’s not here to make this presentation and that it also wasn’t made months ago.

Council Member Craig Rice
This lies firmly in the county executive’s lap. And look, I have been incredibly complimentary to the county executive in terms of how I think we’ve responded to the pandemic, and so now, I can also equally be critical of the fact that we failed. We dropped the ball. And it does rest in his court. That’s just the reality…

We cannot work as a county if we have a disconnect between the county executive and the county council on something that is so important as keeping people in their homes, putting food on their tables and making sure that they can continue to be employed. I mean, these are basics. And if it’s not happening, then there’s a serious problem ahead…

[To Stoddard] I just want to say I appreciate you falling on your sword, but sir, it’s not your sword to fall on.

Friedson
With all due respect, I heard earlier about the county executive and his frustration. We don’t need frustration from the county executive, we need leadership. And thus far on these issues, we have not seen it, and we need to.

On top of all that, Stoddard made this grim observation.

The FEMA reimbursement process is going to be incredibly difficult, not just for us, but also for FEMA. And as I think I have alluded to before, my experience with FEMA is generally that if they can find a reason not to reimburse you for something, they’re going to find it. And they’re going to utilize that as a rationale to not reimburse.

The county was counting on FEMA to reimburse it for tens of millions of dollars in extra pay County Executive Marc Elrich granted to the county employee unions. If the county doesn’t get federal money to finance that extra pay, it will blow a massive hole in its budget. In that case, the next nuke could be launched at Rockville from Wall Street with the county’s bond rating at ground zero.

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MoCo Not Moving to Phase 3 for Child Care

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County Government has announced that it will not be moving to phase 3 for child care. Governor Larry Hogan announced last week that the state’s phase 3 plan now included expanded teacher-child ratios for child care providers but MoCo will not be proceeding in that direction for now. The county’s press release appears below.

Montgomery County Will Not Be Moving to Phase 3 for Child Care Programs
For Immediate Release: Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles reminded child care providers that Montgomery County is not moving to Phase 3 for child care programs. On Thursday Oct. 1, Governor Larry Hogan and Superintendent for the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) Karen Salmon announced updated guidelines for child care programs allowing programs to serve up to 20 three- and four-year-old children in a room with a ratio of one teacher to 10 students and up to 30 school-age students with a ratio of one teacher to 15 students.

Montgomery County will not make this change and will continue to review the recent updates to provide more thorough guidance to child care providers that are affected. Montgomery County made the decision not to proceed based on the data that show sustained levels of community transmission and a continued high percentage of new cases in the zero to 19-year-old age group. This means that child care centers, family providers, letter of compliance programs and other entities licensed under the MSDE Office of Child Care, including school-age care in the county will remain at the levels currently in place.

Child care providers are reminded that they must continue to adhere to the State and local requirements for the wearing of face coverings, physical distancing of six feet, and sanitizing of hands, shared equipment and facilities. These precautions are critical as the County works to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

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Teachers Repond to Lynne Harris

Guest blog by Grace Lovelace, David Stein and Kerrin Torres-Meriwether.

Classroom educators in MCPS, such as ourselves, were disappointed by Board of Education candidate Lynne Harris’s comments to the Blair High School newspaper, Silver Chips. A potential Board of Education member should refrain from comments that add to a nation-wide, slanderous campaign against teachers’ unions. While we found her comments to be false and accusatory of her fellow educators and our Association being obstructionist, we appreciate Ms. Harris’s apology.

As we reflect on Ms. Harris’s comments and apology, it is important to clarify the following:

Montgomery County Board of Education members oversee a school system with over 160,000 students and a budget of more than two billion dollars. Board members must choose their public words carefully; they do not have the luxury of speaking off the cuff, even when they are tired.

The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) and our colleagues across the country have been the most vital voice for guaranteeing safety for staff members and students before returning to schools and worksites.

MCEA and its educators are not to blame for schools being closed, given that we do not make the decision to reopen. In fact, over the last several months, MCEA staff and members have been hard at work advocating and collaborating on the robust virtual program staff members, students, and parents deserve in addition to safe and structured reopening proposals. We have presented MCPS with innovative proposals, including requests for personal protective equipment and adequate sanitation supplies; training for staff members, students, and parents on proper COVID-19 protocols and precautions; and a district matching program for donated resources with equitable distribution to highly impacted schools. MCEA has played a constructive role in ensuring educator seats at the table, as we advocate for educators, students, and their families.

We are proud of the work we and our colleagues do, not only in schools and other worksites but in the additional hours we volunteer with our Association. While they may sometimes disagree with our positions, Board of Education members customarily demonstrate respect for our union’s work. They must inspire confidence among educators and help establish transparent communication between the school district and families. They should promote the profession of educators and amplify their voices; Ms. Harris, in both her original comments and in her apology, failed in this fundamental obligation.

Grace Lovelace is a second-grade teacher at Brown Station Elementary School.
David Stein is a math teacher at Montgomery Blair High School.
Kerrin Torres-Meriwether is a staff development teacher at Watkins Mill High School.

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How Will We Pay for This?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Confronting one of the worst recessions in its history, the MoCo government is projecting a loss of $190 million in revenue this fiscal year and over $1 billion over the next six fiscal years. With such dire financial projections, one would think that the county would be looking for ways to save money above and beyond the low-hanging fruit it has already plucked. Instead, the county has created a new spending stream with no obvious way to pay for it.

What is this new spending stream? On April 10, County Executive Marc Elrich announced that he had reached an agreement with the three county employee unions (MCGEO, the fire fighters and the police) to provide their members with COVID-19 differential pay. The extra pay applied to two categories of employees.

Front Facing Onsite: work that cannot be performed by telework, involves physical interaction with the public and cannot be performed with appropriate social distancing. These employees would get an extra $10 per hour.

Back Office Onsite: work that cannot be performed by telework and does not involve regular physical interaction with the public. These employees would get an extra $3 per hour.

The extra pay was retroactive to the March 29 pay period and was supposed to be in effect for six pay periods “or until the Maryland State of Emergency is lifted.” At the time, county council staff estimated that the extra pay would cost the county $3.2 million per pay period. As of this writing, I am told that the COVID pay continues. (Note: this pay arrangement does not apply to MCPS or other agencies legally separate from county government.)

My sources tell me that the county’s COVID pay program is one of the most generous in the United States. It is far more generous than the state’s COVID pay, which was an extra $3.13 per hour for some classifications of public safety, juvenile center and healthcare employees plus $2.00 more for those working in quarantine areas. (The $3.13 per hour ended on September 8 while the quarantine pay continues.) The generosity of the county’s program can further be seen by its cost: $3.2 million per pay period versus the state’s $3.3 million. MoCo has roughly 10,000 employees while the state has more than 80,000.

Elrich painted this extra pay as a financial win for the county. His press release stated, “The County Executive noted that under provisions of existing county bargaining agreements (which were negotiated years ago), the unions could have insisted on much larger benefits, but they understood the importance of the ongoing fiscal health of the county.” So according to Elrich, by giving the unions something less than what their agreements gave them, he was saving the county money.

In retrospect, that was a dubious claim. The unions are indeed entitled to double pay during emergencies under their agreements. However, a careful examination of the county’s collective bargaining agreements with MCGEO, the fire fighters and the police shows that their emergency pay provisions relate to weather emergencies. The emergency pay provision in the police agreement is actually labeled “Snow Emergency-General Emergency Pay.” All three agreements contain this language:

“General emergency” for the purpose of this agreement is defined as any period determined by the County Executive, Chief Administrative Officer, or designee to be a period of emergency, such as inclement weather conditions. Under such conditions, County offices are closed and services are discontinued; only emergency services shall be provided.

The county suspended some (but not all) services early during the COVID crisis but many of them are being provided now. The county even said as far back as March 13, “While schools and public facilities will be closed, Montgomery County offices remain open for business and operations are continuing.” This status does not qualify as a general emergency under the contract language.

MCGEO’s agreement contains this additional language:

Implementation of General Emergencies shall be in accordance with Administrative Procedure 4-21, dated July 12, 1991. In addition to the above, before making a determination whether to declare a General Emergency, the CAO or designee will consider recent weather reports regarding the amount of precipitation already accumulated, as well as the forecast for further accumulations during the succeeding 8-hour period. Other considerations that the CAO or designee will take into account include whether the major roadways of the County are passable and safe for travel and whether the County public schools have been closed for the day and what actions other public sector jurisdictions in the Washington Metropolitan Region take. The decision whether to declare a General Emergency shall be based on the cumulative of all these factors and no one factor shall be conclusive or determinative. The County Executive or CAO should attempt to give employees the earliest notice of whether a general emergency or liberal leave period will be declared.

Again, this clearly relates to a weather emergency.

Either Elrich knew all this and granted concessions anyway or he didn’t bother to read the union contracts and was out-negotiated by MCGEO’s shrewd president, Gino Renne. If the latter, he is not the first executive to be cleaned out at the bargaining table by Gino! The unions were quite upset to see the council cancel $28 million of compensation increases last spring, but they have already earned more than that in COVID pay.

It’s important to note that the county council had no role in this. Normally, the council would approve economic elements of a new collective bargaining agreement inside county government. But in this instance, a renegotiation occurred of an existing agreement. Elrich did not ask for council approval and the council did not bless it.

The issue here isn’t whether employees should get COVID pay. Of course they should. If you were a police officer, a fire fighter, a correctional officer, a Ride On bus driver or another employee interacting with the public for hours on end, you would want it too! The issue is whether the county has a way to pay for it, especially given its troubled financial condition. And that’s where the matter gets complicated.

One place where the county can turn for COVID expenses is federal grant funds, especially those disbursed under the CARES Act. To date, the county has received $223 million in federal grant funds during the COVID crisis. The status of those funds is a bit murky, but my quick and dirty math from examining the county council’s spending resolutions is that close to all of that money has already been appropriated. Last summer, the county was hoping a deal in Congress would produce more federal funds but it didn’t happen. Now there is talk of covering at least part of the COVID pay through a FEMA reimbursement but who knows if that will occur. Looming over all of this is the question of how long the payments will continue.

If federal funds are not available, the county’s options for financing its COVID pay program are difficult ones. It could make offsetting spending cuts although most county spending is tied to labor in one way or another. (How crazy would it be to pay employees more and then furlough them?) It could dip into reserves, which might impact its AAA bond rating. It could raid retiree health care funds yet again (something that was hinted at in July), which has already earned it a rebuke from Wall Street. Or it could raise taxes.

Readers, what would you do?

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Harris Apologizes for Comments on School Reopening

By Adam Pagnucco.

School board at-large candidate Lynne Harris, who blasted the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) for allegedly obstructing school reopening, has apologized. Harris issued the statement below on her website.

STATEMENT REGARDING COMMENTS IN SEPT. 27 SILVER CHIPS PRESS RELEASE

I deeply apologize for comments I made to the reporters from Silver Chips, the student newspaper for Montgomery Blair High School. I recognize that the comments hurt and offended fellow teachers and do not reflect my deep respect and gratitude for their dedicated work to support our students.

As a teacher myself, I know how hard MCPS staff members are working during this time of crisis. Many of us are balancing the work with supporting the distance learning of our own kids — that can be a gargantuan task, particularly if you have young learners, or students with special needs. As rewarding as the work is, many of us are feeling fatigue and frustration working 7 days a week to get the job done.

It’s a bad idea to speak to the media when you’re tired and frustrated. My words do not reflect how much I value the hard work of MCPS educators. I am sorry to anyone who feels unappreciated by my poorly-worded comments. Offending hard-working fellow teachers is the last thing I ever intended to do.

I’m grateful to the many teachers and staff who volunteered for the important work on design teams last summer. I also worked on a curriculum review/writing team, which included writing a plan to bring small groups of students safely back into our buildings for specialized training. While teachers were working on these projects, MCEA (the teachers’ union) and MCPS were simultaneously engaged in difficult contract negotiations, impacting a more collaborative approach to create a plan for distance learning.

I hope you’ll read my blog below for a more thorough perspective. Teachers, MCPS, families – we all want to keep students and staff safe. I welcome a meeting with MCEA anytime to clear up any misunderstandings.

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Harris Blasts MCEA Over School Reopening

By Adam Pagnucco.

Silver Chips, the online newspaper for Blair High School, had quite a scoop yesterday. The newspaper asked school board at-large candidates Lynne Harris and Sunil Dasgupta for their opinions on the statement issued by MCPS and its three employee unions about potential reopening for in-person instruction. According to Silver Chips, Harris said the following in an email on Saturday:

Personally I’m completely frustrated that the associations, especially MCEA, would NOT get in the boat and row since Spring to help create meaningful Covid plans for teaching and learning, especially limited in-person instruction––they were obstructionist, inflammatory, and just said ‘no’ to everything. We need plans in place NOW to bring small groups of students into schools safely––for special education instruction, for specialized arts and other programs that require access to MCPS facilities and resources to be equitably delivered, for CTE programs that can’t be delivered virtually etc.

Harris had more to say about this topic on her website.

Silver Chips also carried a reply from Dasgupta that conforms with his guest blog on Seventh State today.

Dasgupta has been endorsed by MCEA (the teachers) and SEIU Local 500 (support staff) among others. Harris has been endorsed by the Washington Post editorial board, which at various times over the years has been critical of MCEA.

During the primary, there weren’t a lot of apparent differences between Harris and Dasgupta as both were defending MCPS’s boundary study from criticism by fellow at-large candidate Stephen Austin, who finished third, and his supporters. Silver Chips has done the public an immense service by revealing a meaningful difference between these candidates.

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