Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith on Wednesday said the district is committed to keeping part-time and building services workers employed through the fall, but added, “How we do that, at this point, I don’t know.”
Smith said the school district will rely on those workers to ensure it can operate effectively when schools reopen.
“When we can come back together in a more typical fashion, we need those systems in place that we’ve always counted on to make the school system operate,” he said during a press briefing to discuss Tuesday’s announcement that MCPS will conduct only virtual classes for the first semester of the next academic year.
Smith said MCPS made a commitment during deliberations about the next fiscal year’s budget to “keep the school system intact.” But, he said he recognizes there are severe budget constraints at the local and state levels, so it will be important that MCPS uses “our employees in the most effective manner.”
MCPS’ announcement on Tuesday that it would conduct only virtual classes was a change from previously released plans that outlined a goal to have some part-time, face-to-face instruction this fall.
MCPS released a community message that said Chief Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles told school officials, “Based upon the current state of surveillance and epidemiological data, I would not recommend in-person instruction for students inside school buildings at this time.”
In his message, Smith wrote that county officials will reassess health conditions at the end of the first quarter, on Nov. 9, to determine if MCPS can begin phasing students into buildings in the second semester, which begins Feb. 1, 2021.
On Wednesday, Gayles pointed to state and national increases in COVID-19 cases — particularly an increase in cases among people age 10 to 19 in Maryland — as reasons he recommended that schools not reopen in the fall.
Gayles said that “in a perfect world,” he understands the value of in-person education is greater than when children learn from home. But, he said, “We’re not in a perfect world.”
“The decision to close schools was made when we were averaging around four new cases per day. Right now, we’re still averaging around 70 and 80 cases per day, and increases in the percentages of young people impacted and affected by the virus,” Gayles said. “When you’re talking about school settings, you’re talking about being in an enclosed, indoor space, around a number of people for an extended period of time. …
“We’re not at a point where the viral burden in the community is to be able to approve having those types of environments … which do increase the risk of transmission for students, as well as staff members.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, 1,174 people age 17 and younger have tested positive for COVID-19 in Montgomery County. None have died, according to the county’s Department of Health and Human Services website.
In Maryland, nearly 7,200 people younger than 19 have tested positive for the coronavirus and one has died, according to the state Department of Health website.
Neither the state Department of Health nor a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan responded to requests for more information about pediatric cases in Maryland.
For the past four weeks in Montgomery County, the number of new cases per week has increased by an average of about 4%, according to county data. In the same period, cases among people 17 and younger have increased about 6% each week, according to data provided to Bethesda Beat by the county Department of Health and Human Services.
Smith said MCPS is committed to providing a “rigorous, dynamic learning experience for students” with more live instruction from teachers compared to the spring.
In MCPS’ original fall plan, the district proposed having four days of live instruction per week while students learn from home. One day each week, students would work independently while teachers participated in training and professional development opportunities.
On Wednesday, school district spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala wrote in an email that MCPS is “looking at a range of options — including a 4 day, 4.5 day and 5-day model” for live instruction.
More information about student schedules and expectations for the fall are expected at a school board meeting on Aug. 6.
There will likely be fewer new students enrolled in the 2020-21 academic year than officials expected, Smith said Wednesday.
MCPS was expecting an enrollment increase of about 2,500 students, but approximately 300 new students had enrolled with the district as of July 1, Smith said.
He attributed the difference to families’ “lack of mobility” during the COVID-19 pandemic, and new economic struggles for some families who might have had to move to less expensive areas or into family members’ homes.
Last school year, the MCPS enrollment grew by more than 2,700, the largest one-year increase in more than a decade. The MCPS enrollment has grown by more than 11,000 students since 2010, solidifying the school district as one of the largest in the country.
During Wednesday morning’s news conference, Smith also addressed students’ disappointment that fall and winter sports were canceled. He said, “We understand that this is devastating” and MCPS will “continue to look at how we can support students through the digital world.” He also offered support to students whose band, arts, choir and other extracurricular activities will be canceled.
An online petition calling for MCPS to conduct the sports seasons in the spring had gathered nearly 3,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
In a statement Tuesday, Director of Systemwide Athletics Jeff Sullivan wrote that, “While we are deeply saddened by the cancellation of interscholastic athletics during this time, we know that the number one priority for everyone is the health and safety of our students and staff.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org