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School board votes to begin return to in-person learning on March 1

by Judith Hruz


The Montgomery County Board of Education on Feb. 9 voted to begin the safe return to in-person learning on March 1, starting with students in specific special education and Career and Technical Education programs, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) reported.

The school system posted the announcement, addressed to parents, guardians, staff and students, on the MCPS website that evening.

The school board also approved the phased return of students to in-person instruction beginning March 15, as recommended by the superintendent.

The board also voted to adjust the 2020-2021 school calendar to make March 8 a non-instructional day for staff to finish the preparation of buildings and participate in professional development before students return.

Gov. Larry Hogan and the state superintendent of schools on Jan. 21 called on all Maryland school systems to return to hybrid instruction — a combination of in-person and virtual learning — no later than March 1.

But just a few days before, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted to delay the start of returning small groups of students to school buildings for in-person instruction from Feb. 1 to March 15 because the new case rate and test positivity in the county are too high.

Returning on March 15 would depend on meeting the health metrics set by the school board or the adjusted guidance of health leaders as a result of vaccine distribution.

The COVID-19 new case rate and test positivity in the county remain significantly above the thresholds adopted by the county and state.

The school board in December set the Feb. 1 date for phased return to school buildings if the COVID-19 case rate was not more than 15 per 100,000 residents or a test positivity rate of less than 5 percent.

On Jan. 12, Montgomery County’s case rate was 49.8 per 100,000 resident and a test positivity rate of 7.7 percent.

On Jan. 28, the case rate was 33.7 per 100,000 residents with a test positivity rate of 5.9 percent.

On Feb. 11, the case rate was 18.7 per 100,000 residents with a test positivity rate of 4.8 percent.

But Hogan has urged school systems to get some students back to classrooms.

“Every single Maryland student must have at least the opportunity to return to attending school in some form or fashion,” the governor said on Jan. 21. “Our children simply cannot afford any more endless roadblocks, or any more moving of the goalposts. The time has come to get all of our kids back in the classroom, and to open the schools.”

Hogan and Superintendent Dr. Karen Salmon said they would provide the following:

Additional school reopening guidance and educational design options based on scientific evidence, recent studies on the impact of school reopening on community transmission, and the effects of school closures on children and learning;

    $780 million in additional federal relief for school systems to address the effects of the pandemic, and a total of more than $1.2 billion has been made available. In addition, the governor’s Fiscal Year 2022 recovery budget provides a record $7.5 billion for K-12 funding, holding schools harmless from the impact of declining enrollment figures, and ensuring that every jurisdiction receives more funding than in the previous year; and

Prioritizing teachers and education staff to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. School systems have begun implementing plans to vaccinate staff.

In a statement released after Hogan urged schools to return by March 1, officials from Montgomery County Public Schools said MCPS is committed to the safe return to in-person learning for all students.

On Feb. 9, MCPS reported:

“When students return, it will look and feel much different from what they previously experienced in school buildings. Face coverings, physical distancing and frequent hand-washing will be required to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Additionally, how frequently a student attends school in-person and how they engage with their teachers, other staff members and peers will be different.”

Families will receive information on school-specific plans throughout February, MCPS reported. The Recovery Guide provides an overview of plans for virtual and in-person learning experiences; extracurricular activities and athletics; and operations, safety and logistics.

MCPS officials also reported that they are “committed to bringing students back as quickly and safely as possible over the next few weeks. However, because we are unable to predict the path of the pandemic, should the present downward trend in cases change, MCPS may need to revise the approved timeline to keep the well-being of our students and staff at the forefront of our planning.

Dr. Travis Gayles, county health officer, said during the county executive’s weekly press briefing, that many educators will have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine when in-person learning begins.

On Feb. 11, Hogan announced that the Maryland Department of Health and the Maryland State Department of Education have launched a program to provide up to one million COVID-19 tests for public and non-public schools to serve as an additional tool to support schools that are open, or plan to reopen, for in-person learning for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.

The state will provide both rapid antigen point-of-care and diagnostic testing supplies proportional to the number of students and staff returning for in-person learning, based on the anticipated number of students and staff that may need testing, using guidance from state health officials.

The program is voluntary, and schools will have the ability to opt in.

As of Feb. 11, 16 school systems were open for some form of in-person instruction and six more had indicated they would be opening for in-person instruction for at least some students by March 1.

Plans for reopening were due to the Maryland State Department of Education by Feb. 12, after press time.


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