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Students expected to begin return to schools; educators protest plan

by Judith Hruz


Less than a week before public school buildings were expected to open on March 1 to allow the first students to return to in-person learning, members of the Montgomery County Education Association rallied in front of school headquarters to send a message to the Board of Education that they demand a safe and healthy return to classrooms.

Organizers reported that over 1,500 county educators took part in the demonstration outside of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) headquarters on Hungerford Drive in Rockville.

SEIU local 500, based in Rockville and representing 20,000 employees of colleges, universities, public schools and nonprofits in Maryland and Washington, D.C., also participated.

The rally, during which hundreds of vehicles drove through MCPS headquarters parking lot and around the nearby streets, was held in “direct opposition” to the school board’s plan to reopen, according to a Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) press release.

“We are here demanding not to be fuel for the fire that is COVID-19,” parent Jeremy Levine, who said he is a lifelong resident of Montgomery County and has two children who attend county public schools, said during the rally.

MCEA President-Elect Jennifer Martin, a teacher, called it “ironic that we’re demanding safety while we’re standing underneath a flag raised half-mast for over 500,000 lives lost.”

She added, “We will not sacrifice our health and safety.”

In response to the reopening plan approved by the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education on Feb. 9, elected worksite representatives of the Montgomery County Education Association a week later overwhelmingly passed a resolution stating a lack of confidence in the plan.

District 14 Del. Eric Luedtke, a former teacher and former member of MCEA, spoke virtually to those attending the rally.

He thanked the school system’s teachers and staff and said he stood in solidarity with them.

He said the voice of educators was not being taken into consideration by decision-makers, and said the governor and state superintendent of schools dismiss the people closest to the work.

“Don’t say you are eligible for vaccines and then not provide them,” he said. “Don’t not open a mass vaccination site in the single most populous county in the state of Maryland.”

Del. Gabe Acevero (D-Dist. 39) lauded the educators for standing up for themselves, their families and their students, and said he would continue to stand with them.

MCEA said the plan needs “more space, more people and more resources than are now available,” and has inadequate safety measures for students and educators.

Among the issues that MCEA demanded was ensuring all teachers and staff were vaccinated before returning to school buildings.

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith urged County Executive Marc Elrich again that week to make vaccinations for teachers a priority.

However, the county has not received enough vaccinations from the state to go beyond inoculating residents age 75 and older.

The county has partnered with Johns Hopkins University/Suburban Hospital to give its supply of vaccines, also allotted from the state, to educators.

Two days after the rally, MCPS officials brief members of the County Council’s Education & Culture Committee and Health & Human Services Committee on its plans for reopening and reported that 5,851 teachers had been vaccinated or were scheduled for vaccinations through the county’s partnership with Johns Hopkins University.

MCPS and county officials said they will continue to look for other sources for vaccines, including other county hospitals.

MCEA members also want to make sure all schools and classrooms have effective air filtration systems.

Seth Adams of the Montgomery County Public Schools Department of Facilities Management told the council members during the Feb. 25 briefing that the air filtration in every classroom and every school has been tested, and remediation, where appropriate, has been completed.

County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles told the County Council members that school system officials have been following guidance from the Maryland State Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in making its decision on reopening.

In addition to the number of cases, the test positivity rate and the case rate per 100,000 residents decreasing over the past few weeks, MCPS has two additional factors in its favor: teachers and staff have or will be inoculated and the school system has testing apparatus.

But if someone in the school community reported a case of COVID-19 to the school, which would, in turn, report it to the county health department, there would be an investigation to find out where the person might have contracted the virus and who else might be susceptible.

“Every positive case does not mean an entire school would close down, or even and entire classroom,” Gayles said.


Returning in phases


When MCPS sent its 165,000 students home last March after Gov. Larry Hogan ordered state schools to close, educators thought students would return in two weeks.

No one imagined a year later they would be finding a way to send them back to classroom, Smith said.

“Everything we do is now done differently than it was prior to March,” he said.

Students are returning to in-person instruction in phases and those who are returning will attend classes four days each week – Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday – with Wednesday set aside for student support and virtual learning.

On March 1, students in specific special education programs and those in specific career and technical courses who need hands-on class time for certification were expected to return.

Approximately 750 students were expected that first day.

On March 15, the remainder of the approximately 64,600 students who chose to return this spring will begin heading back to school, including the youngest children in kindergarten through third grade.

“Some students in kindergarten have never been in school before,” Smith said.

More groups of students will return in three more phases after that – no later than April 6 for grades 4, 5, 6 and 12 and pre-kindergarten; no later than April 19 for grades 8, 9 and 11; and no later than April 26 for grades 7 and 10.

Smith said 95,800 students will remain in virtual education. Parents were able to choose what type of learning environmental they wanted for their children.

Because of CDC guidelines, each school has a finite number of people who can be in the building and allow for safe social distancing.

Smith said schools have waiting lists between four and 20 students for those who would like to return to in-person instruction.


    Editor’s Note: At press time, which was several days before school buildings were expected to reopen, no other rallies, meetings or actions were planned by the Montgomery County Education Association or Montgomery County Public Schools officials.

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