Tag 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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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MCEA: MCPS Reopening Plan “Wholly Inadequate” to Protect Students and Staff

By Adam Pagnuccco.

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.

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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.

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Distance Learning May be Plan C, but it is the Best Option Right Now

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.

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