Opinion: Governor Says to Reopen Schools, But What’s the Plan?

Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement authorizing school districts across the state to reopen school buildings days before the new school year was about to start is going to add to parent, student and teacher anxiety and stress.

The larger trends are not promising. Public health experts see infection rates moving back up as the flu season approaches. There may be some new federal resources, but state and county authorities are not promising additional funding. And Montgomery County Public Schools is caught in a labor dispute with the county teachers union, whose trust and cooperation would make the whole process go smoother.

With MCPS now under renewed pressure to reopen schools sooner, district officials must start planning seriously for that eventuality. The draft plan for hybrid learning MCPS presented in July and then abandoned was a one-size-fits-all approach whose scale during ramp-up could doom it.

Bringing back K-2, sixth and ninth grades means accommodating well over 50,000 students. Assuming 15 students in a classroom, this would require at least 3,500 teachers and classrooms. There are better candidates for first-in students and for matching students with staff.

Equity first: Invite the most impacted students back first. These are students who rarely or never accessed online platforms, students with 1-on-1 or small group special education plans, students who are reading below grade level, and English language learners. MCPS has the data to identify these people. These students are the ones who have not adjusted to online learning.

Only after accommodating the most impacted students, should MCPS consider the general population, and then prioritize for younger students before older ones.

The actual number of returning students the school system can handle depends on the number of staff willing to return and the availability of suitable space. The decision to return for students, teachers and staff is going to be made based on individual and family circumstance. MCPS should honor these choices.

Accurate, continuous counts: MCPS recently conducted family and teacher surveys. They were not demographically representative, and some parents filled out the survey multiple times. Parts of the county were hardly represented. MCPS needs data from every family, every group, and every cluster to plan and re-open. I propose a continuous census of student and teacher.

The census should ask about willingness to return to school under a variety of circumstances. For example, the rate of infection, family situation, building status, availability and take-up rate of an effective vaccine, among other questions. There should be space to include narrative answers.

There are a number of highly qualified research companies in Montgomery County that can implement such a census. They bring methodological, technical and operational experience MCPS staff does not have.

Families should be asked to complete the census separately for each student and be able to choose different options for different children. Teachers and staff should answer similar forms. All respondents should be allowed to change their choices as many times as they want simply by logging into the MCPS dashboard and selecting from a pulldown menu a reason for wanting the change. A call-in number should be available for those who cannot access the dashboard.

Find space now: The Center for Disease Control’s 6-feet social distancing guidance means each student and teacher will need to occupy 36 square feet of space. This means that classrooms and, sometimes, school buildings themselves are going to be inadequate.

MCPS should work with the county to identify and begin to open up county-owned school buildings and consider non-traditional spaces including empty office buildings and malls.

MCPS, including teachers and staff, must be flexible in work location and assignment to enable better matching of staff and students. Teachers may have to work out of their grade level, for example, but they are smart and adaptable.

Hire more: With the pandemic calling for smaller class size, MCPS needs to hire more teachers and staff. In Italy, the public schools are hiring 80,000 new teachers to enable smaller classes and contained germ pools. MCPS should hire at least one nurse in each school building. Parents should be invited to volunteer time to conduct the necessary contact tracing.

Develop protocols: Lastly, MCPS needs to develop a plan for testing, contact tracing and quarantine. What happens if students and staff come into contract the virus, whether that is on campus or not. How can a family or teachers report virus contacts? MCPS must know in advance what it will do in many different circumstances. The protocols must be understandable and simple enough to execute.

The announcement pushing back the phase-in to January gives MCPS time to plan. Using this time to develop a strong phase-in plan based on equity, census counting, and finding the resources to use new spaces and hire more staff would make a new reentry plan credible.

As published in Maryland Matters on August 31, 2020.

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