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As MCPS prepares for a virtual first semester, several stakeholders express frustration regarding the county’s planning process

Montgomery County Public Schools announced on July 21 that the first semester of the upcoming school year will be virtual, meaning that students and staff will engage in an entirely online learning environment from Aug. 31 until at least Jan. 29, 2021. Since then, many teachers, students, and parents have expressed concern about the continued ambiguity surrounding this plan as the first day of school draws closer.

Adjusting to a new normal 

The first draft of the fully-virtual recovery plan was released to the public on Aug. 4 and discussed by the Board of Education at their meeting on Aug. 6. It described a system of synchronous, full-day learning—a format that some people, like Blair English teacher Kelly O’Connor, think will, “help students [by giving the] day some shape and structure.” Others, however, are concerned that an entire day online will be unproductive for students: “It's not realistic for a student to be able to maintain the level of attention that one would have staring at a Zoom screen for the entire school day,” said Dina Borzekowski, parent of a Blair sophomore and Director of the Global Health Initiative at the University of Maryland.

This was one of the concerns that Board members raised at their Aug. 6 meeting, especially with respect to elementary school students. Dozens of studies show correlations between increased screen time for children and potential developmental challenges, like speech delays and insulin resistance. As such, the educational recovery plan was updated on Aug. 14 to include a longer lunch break and additional planning time, and the Board will review the final iteration during their meeting on Aug. 25. The overall bell schedule, grading policy, and other details—such as provisions for students to access class material if they are unable to attend at the scheduled time—are expected to be confirmed then.

Diagram summarizing how time will be allocated in a standard school day for elementary school students, taken from the most recent MCPS Fall 2020 Draft Recovery of Education Guide.

Several teachers and parents are “unsettled” by the lack of information provided over the summer and have shared these concerns with the Board of Education, Board member Jeanette Dixon (At-Large) explained. “They think it's cutting it close for the board to be making a decision on the 25th, which is a day after the teachers return on Aug. 24. Typically, I think a lot of participants would use the summer to plan,” Dixon told Silver Chips.

Robert Gibb, a social studies teacher at Blair and coach of the girls’ varsity soccer team, is one of these teachers. “I guess they have to wait until our first day back as teachers to do anything,” he said, “but you would think that some information could be pumped out sooner… to wait till the first day teachers go back, which is only a week before students go back, that's not enough.” 

David Stein, who teaches math at Blair, agreed with Gibb—but he also expressed confidence in teachers’ ability to adapt. “They were entertaining this hybrid plan… for weeks and weeks and weeks, which was never a safe option. And that took so much of the time that by the time they got around to admitting that we weren't going to be going back in the building, then they had to start figuring [virtual learning] out,” Stein said, “but teachers are flexible and will make whatever work.”

Options for teachers

Concurrent to the development of the virtual learning plan, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) and MCPS reached an informal agreement regarding the next contract after ten months of negotiations. In an email sent to members on Aug. 10, the MCEA outlined teacher responsibilities for the upcoming school year, as well as what support will be available. In addition to “significant gains” for special educators and an increase in resource allocation for ESOL programs, MCPS—“after much back and forth”—agreed to “provide updated Chromebooks to all educators that include access to a fully functional Windows desktop [and] Wi-Fi to any educator who does not have reliable internet.”

The county has not offered more information on how teachers will be able to use Windows apps from Chromebooks, which are lightweight devices that instead run a Linux-based operating system called Chrome OS. 

Teachers also do not know how or when they will be able to make use of Windows features on their Chromebooks. Most elementary school teachers have “new 15-inch Acer Chromebooks [but] no Windows desktop right now,” said Susan Loftus, a physical education teacher at Burning Tree Elementary School, in an email correspondence with Silver Chips. “[I am] not sure if this is going to be some type of add-on later.” 

Middle and high school teachers will have to wait several weeks before receiving standard Chromebooks, according to Loftus, but principals and administrators do not have to wait for their devices. 

Dixon, who also chairs the Board’s Fiscal Management Committee, thinks that teachers need better computers. “They need better technology than the Chromebooks to deliver the instructional program,” Dixon said, “and I think that with, a 2.8 billion dollar budget, we should be able to equip them… [with] a laptop as they requested.” To fund this, she explained that “there will be savings in other areas,” citing transportation, water, electricity, and other school supplies, and she has asked to see a report on what expenses have been offset for the school system by the coronavirus.

Loftus also explained that elementary school special educators will not get the same Acer Chromebooks as other teachers. Instead, they will receive traditional laptops in four to five weeks. While Loftus called this “good news,” she thinks the delay is because “MCPS waited too long to decide.”

SHASHI ARNOLD

Dixon would also like teachers to have the flexibility to choose between instructing remotely from their homes or a physical classroom that only they use. “Not everybody has the space or the wherewithal to establish a classroom at home,” she said. It is unclear if this option will be available; MCPS spokesperson Gboyinde Onijala did not respond to a request for comment.

Ambiguity about the return to physical schooling

Another point of contention continues to be whether physical schools are guaranteed to remain closed for the entire first semester. During their Aug. 6 meeting, the Board of Education unanimously voted to approve a virtual first semester; however, when asked at the end of the meeting if this may change due to improved public health conditions, Superintendent of Schools Jack Smith said, “Absolutely… if circumstances are such by the end of October, it could be accelerated… I would be recommending that.”

Teachers and parents who attended the Board meeting were surprised by this change from the county’s previous announcement of a fully virtual first semester. “I was not virtually present at the county meeting,” said O’Connor, “[but] there was a vote about ‘if all else is well… how about we might go back at the end of the first quarter?’ And people voted on it, but it… created  a huge uproar instantly.” 

The next morning, on Aug. 7, MCPS released an update to the community summarizing the events of the Board meeting, in which their commitment to a fully virtual first semester was reinforced. Stein does not believe that there was ever any intention to go back before February. “It caused a whole lot of confusion,” he said. “The way [the superintendent] said it let people believe that there was some chance that we were going back in the first semester, but that was never the intent…  I believe what he meant was that we would be considering figuring out how to go back in the second semester during the first semester.”

Onijala confirmed this in an email on Aug. 10: “At this time, we are moving forward with the plan to remain in virtual-only instruction through Jan. 29,” she wrote. “We will be reassessing (working alongside our county partners) conditions in the county at the end of October/beginning of November. This reassessment is to help us determine if we can resume in-person instruction starting in the second semester.”

However, on Aug. 13, Dixon suggested there may be a chance that school does reopen during the first semester. “ I don't expect that they will… [but] if things looked better in terms of being able to return students to school, that could change,” she said. She expects that school will indeed remain virtual until at least the end of the first semester and, in a clarifying email, emphasized that this is “highly unlikely.”

As of Aug. 10, there are no clear guidelines for what will allow schools to safely open for in-person instruction during the second semester. “Regarding transmission rates, we follow the guidance of state and county officials and don’t have independent parameters/rates set,” Onijala wrote. Dixon furthered that the Board will receive an update regarding covid-19 and its impact on instruction on Nov. 10. 

Travis Gayles, the Montgomery County Health Officer and Chief of Public Health Services, and other county officials will continue providing MCPS with their recommendations and guidance, but ultimately, the Board of Education will make the final call. Gayles did not respond to requests for comment.

Dixon explained that while she understands people need information, it is impossible to predict what the situation will look like in a few months. “I know people have to prepare and plan… but that's what this pandemic is. It's uncertainty.”

Timeline outlining the overall planning and evaluation process that MCPS has begun to operate under and intends to continue, taken from the most recent MCPS Fall 2020 Draft Recovery of Education Guide.

The future of grading and exams in MCPS

Student leaders like Hana O’Looney, a junior at Richard Montgomery High School and Vice President of the Montgomery County Regional Student Government Association, says there are challenges posed by the constantly changing pandemic but is also concerned that a lack of clarity will adversely affect students’ learning.

“MCPS is in a tough place right now because they have to come out with this new online learning model,” said O’Looney. “I understand that they had to put together a lot of things really quickly, but at the same time, [the] details are super ambiguous and concerning, and if any one detail is wrong, it could possibly affect a student’s entire educational experience.” 

One of these unclear details is the grading plan. Last semester, the county changed the grading model to prioritize equity during an asynchronous learning schedule: Students were able to choose either a “pass” or one letter grade higher than what they received in the third quarter. For the upcoming semester, the county opted to revert to a traditional grading system.

O’Looney believes that a grading system structured somewhat closer to a standard model will help give structure to the school year. “I think that is a good plan… there needs to be some sense of normality,” she says. “[But] there needs to be equity and make sure that students who don't have a comfortable environment at home are able to participate in the classroom in the same way they would be in normal circumstances.”

“[The county] said that we're just doing regular grading,” Stein explained. “In my classes, I'll be very graceful about grades because this is a tough situation for everybody, and you don't want to end up grading people on what their internet capabilities are.”

While this is an outlook that Stein thinks will be consistent at Blair, he is unsure what grading will look like across the entire county. “I don’t think [the county] knows what they have in mind,” he said. “The grading is going to come down to [each] teacher having some humanity and consideration for what's going on.”

Community feedback

As they evaluate and update the plan, the county is actively seeking input from all community members. “This plan is only going to work if MCPS actually gets comments and criticism from the community and from students who are actually going to be experiencing this reopening plan,” O’Looney said. “Do tell them that if you have concerns.”

Parents, students, and teachers are encouraged to share their thoughts with the Board of Education. While the sign up form to make a public statement at the Aug. 25 Board meeting closed on Aug. 21, community members can submit written comments to the Board.

Technically, the Board does not have to approve the plan at this meeting; however, MCPS Onijala wrote in an email to Silver Chips that this is “very unlikely.” Dixon echoed this: “I don't think that's a possibility with school opening on Aug, 31,” Dixon told Silver Chips. “What I'm hopeful is that, in this time between Aug, 6 and Aug. 25, those who were charged with working out all of the details… are doing the due diligence that's needed so that they can get the support of all of us on the Board.” 

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