Board of Education moves forward with plan to reopen schools in March

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Starting March 15, students will gradually be integrated into the building within four separate groups.

By Zoe Cantor

The Montgomery County Board of Education unanimously approved the March 1 and March 15 school reopening plans in a meeting today. 

The March 1 reopening plan will phase in small groups of special education programs and schools with career and technical programs at Thomas Edison, Paint Branch, Seneca Valley Gaithersburg and Damascus. 

Starting March 15, students will gradually be integrated into the building within four separate groups. Group 1.1 will bring in more special education programs, career and technical programs and K-3 learning. Starting no later than April 6, Group 1.2 will bring in the rest of elementary school and Pre-K, sixth graders, additional  special education students and high school seniors. By April 19, the eighth, ninth and eleventh grades will be phased in. Group 2.2 will begin no later than April 26 and bring in the remaining secondary grade levels. 

“We recognize that the phasing schedules the rotations and the experiences will not be perfect,” said Janet Wilson, Chief of Teaching, Learning and Schools. “However, it is important to recognize there is great value in the experience of being in school, riding the bus, seeing friends and having access to a staff member.”

All secondary students will have an A/B rotation with approximately half of each grade switching between in-person learning one week and virtual learning the next.Wednesdays will remain virtual and asynchronous, functioning as a time for students to conference with staff members, and for building services to conduct a schoolwide deep clean to curb the potential spread of COVID-19.

In-person classes will have direct teacher-to-student instruction, contrary to a concept floated by the Board which would have kept pupils in school while educators provided virtual instruction from Chromebooks. However, instructional planning will vary between schools. One proposal calls for “simultaneous instruction,” where teachers place equal attention on virtual and in-person students. 

 MCPS has continued to partner with Johns Hopkins and Montgomery County’s Health and Human Services staff, ensuring direct instruction is as safe as possible.

“We’re at our lowest rate since November,” said Chief of Engagement, Innovation and Operations Derek Turner. “We are moving as quickly as we can to get our staff vaccinated as another precaution and another safety measure to help expand the safety of our schools when we reopen.”

Although county officials intend on integrating students back into an in-person environment, it’s unclear how many fa.m.ilies are willing to let their children return to the classrooms.  In a survey conducted by MCPS, only 40% of students answered that they planned to come back to the classroom. The majority of such respondents lived in the Bethesda or Chevy Chase area, which is one with a greater economic advantage compared to the rest of the county, as well as a higher percentage of white students. The Board has acknowledged stakeholders’ concerns on returning and intends to announce how it will align all students, regardless of their willingness to come back to the classroom, in a future meeting. . 

The Board also discussed communication timelines for families. In the coming days, schools will reach out to their students to share their official reentry plans,  allowing families the chance  to ask questions about the process. Within the next week, schools will officially announce their learning plans, and whether classes will be hybrid or completely online. Families will have the opportunity to change their selection of in-person or online learning, a choice MCPS asked parents and students to when infection rates were far higher,   through a request by one’s school. Before March 15, schools will hold virtual orientations for their students. 

“It’s important that in our communication we’re making sure we are putting out information that’s easily digestible for students,” said Student Member of the Board Nick Asante. “Especially because every single student at the secondary level is going to have such a different situation with different classes.”

Secondary schools will revert back to the bell schedules of last year; the transportation schedule will start again at 7:45 a.m. and middle school at 8:15 a.m.. The current support period will be moved to the beginning of the day to keep online and in-person classes at the same pace. High school instruction will begin at 9:00 a.m. It has not been decided whether Whitman will continue with its virtual schedule of four classes per school day, or if it will revert back to the pre-pandemic version which included eight periods. 

“There are so many other requirements in a school in a typical world that now they’ve just been exacerbated tremendously,” Superintendent Jack Smith said. “We want to make sure all of these things can be done safely and appropriately.”

 

Jack McGuire contributed to this article.