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.
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.