At a Montgomery County School Board meeting earlier today, the presidents of three local education unions voiced their concerns about the reopening of schools.
“Our membership has bent over backwards for over a year and a half, and we are about to break,” said Pia Morrison, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500.
Christine Handy, president of the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals (MCAAP), described the ongoing challenges of a significant staff shortage.
“We have paraeducators covering multiple classes without proper technology, bus drivers and their supervisors are operating multiple routes and food service workers are covering shortages in other schools while leaving their shortage in their home schools,” she said. “Teachers are covering quarantined students and serving as substitute teachers. Administrators are forced to become public health workers and contact tracers. All of this work is piled on top of our traditional duties and responsibilities.”
Jennifer Martin, president of the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), cited statistics that show the pandemic has particularly worsened learning outcomes for students of color: between the 2018-2019 and 2020-2021 school years, literacy readiness dropped 38% for Black second graders and 46% for Hispanic second graders.
“Addressing learning recovery is especially challenging as we continue to cope with the fallout of COVID-19 in our communities,” Martin said. “Many permanent positions are still vacant, and substitute teachers are scarce. The pressure to conduct endless assessments reduces the time for instruction. As a result, the start of the school year finds students and their teachers increasingly anxious, weary and falling even further behind.”
Local officials said they’re working to lighten the workload of school staff. For instance, a new regional model for elementary instruction for students in quarantine allows elementary schools to share staff.
“This means that instead of each individual school having to assign staff members to teach on a daily basis for large portions of the day, schools are taking turns offering staff to teach students from across all participating schools,” said Dr. Sarah Sirgo, a director in the Office of School Support and Improvement. “On a given day, this means that students in individual quarantine log on to a central Zoom link that we provide, and they're taught by one of the many talented staff among our participating schools.”
Staff members teaching quarantined students across the district were able to pre-select their preferred grade level and subject area. So far, 63 of the 137 MCPS elementary schools have opted into the regional quarantine instruction program.
Interim Superintendent Dr. Monika McKnight highlighted new initiatives designed to keep COVID and quarantine numbers low. Say Yes to the Test is a program with the goal of getting parental consent throughout the county to perform regular COVID-19 testing in schools.
“Those consent forms are really important for us to have—that's one less part in the process of us having to call and follow up, and we can have that information on file and do exactly what we need to do in a timely manner to provide our students the opportunity to stay in school,” McKnight said. “To date we have received consent forms for nearly 38,000 students in grades pre-K through sixth.”
Jimmy D’Andrea, MCPS chief of staff, said that in addition to working with the Maryland Department of Health and Human Services on hiring more support staff in school health rooms, the county is also preparing for the assumed approval of the COVID-19 vaccine for elementary-aged students.
“That's a part of our regular weekly meeting to talk about initial plans for what vaccine clinics will look like and the structure of those, so that when the vaccine is approved for children ages 5 to 11, we can have a plan ready to go to move quickly to start getting our younger children in elementary school vaccinated.”
These efforts, McKnight said, are working.
“During the first week of school, we had more than 2000 students who entered quarantine,” she said. “For the past two weeks, the number of students entering quarantine was under 400… That number continues to decline as we're able to put all of these measures in place—Say Yes to the Test, [students participating] in having the rapid test in their classroom, as well as the individual screening testing that we're doing.”
McKnight also presented a new MCPS COVID-19 web dashboard,
“This new tool will allow the school system to increase transparency about the number of total and ongoing COVID-19 cases and quarantines at each school, and will be updated frequently to provide families with the most up-to-date information,” said Hana O’Looney, the student member of the Board and a senior at Richard Montgomery High School.
O’Looney says being back in school feels incredible.
“The energy in our school buildings, extracurricular activities, and classrooms is palpable, and I’ve heard from so many students —including my own peers— that being back in the building has allowed them to learn better, quicker, and deeper,” she said. “For seniors like myself, I’m just glad we can enjoy our final year reconnecting with our friends and teachers, and experiencing some of the celebratory moments in-person.”