The Montgomery County Board of Education meets on Tuesday in Rockville. Credit: Caitlynn Peetz

After more than two years of focusing on COVID-19 mitigation, Montgomery County Public Schools leaders say they’re poised to begin the new academic year Monday with a “renewed focus on equitable teaching and learning.” 

During a school board meeting Tuesday, district leaders shared presentations on various back-to-school topics, such as academics, safety and changes in the school system’s approach to managing the pandemic. 

“COVID-19 has not left us,” MCPS Medical Officer Patricia Kapunan said. “We’re thrilled to renew our focus on equitable teaching and learning but have more tools than ever to be preemptive, proactive and prepared.” 

This year, MCPS is hoping to help students who struggled during virtual learning regain ground in core subjects such as math and literacy. To do so, it is “extremely important” that they “have access to grade-level” material, rather than spending large amounts of time trying to catch up on content missed in past years, Chief Academic Officer Peggy Pugh said. Teachers will be expected to focus on grade-level content and teach missed content, as needed. 

“We’ve had to live with COVID-19 while doing teaching and learning with the overlay of (COVID) operations, which included contact tracing, rapid testing, test-to-stay,” Chief of Operations Dana Edwards added. “We experienced different things,” and now the district’s focus is shifting “from heavy operations” to academics. 

Other highlights from the district’s presentation about back-to-school plans, include: 

  • Kapunan said the district’s “guiding principles” for COVID-19 mitigation are ensuring people are vaccinated and that they are washing their hands and staying home when sick, as well as promoting good respiratory etiquette (like coughing or sneezing into an elbow, away from others). She said MCPS plans “within the next week” to have more nuanced guidance about when COVID-19 testing or masking may be required for certain classrooms, groups of students or schools. The district’s reopening guide, released to the public last week, offered general information, reminding families that masks are optional districtwide, but that guidance could change for certain groups depending on COVID-19 transmission levels. 

  • Kapunan said MCPS spent $12 million in federal assistance funds on “COVID mitigation supplies,” including $4.7 million on masks alone, during the prior school year. 

  • During a discussion about school safety, Col. Zadok Magruder High School Principal Leroy Evans said that a student who was shot and seriously injured by a classmate at the school in January plans to return for classes this fall. The family is “cautiously optimistic,” Evans said. The student was on life support for three weeks and underwent 10 surgeries following the shooting, according to testimony during recent court proceedings. The trial for the alleged shooter, Steven Alston Jr., is scheduled for February. 

  • MCPS leaders also said they are working to expand a partnership with law enforcement agencies in the county that provides officers with key fobs to access school buildings in an emergency. A new memorandum of understanding is being drafted and should be completed in the next month. The move comes after a mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas left 19 children dead, Edwards said. Police there had said they struggled to access a classroom where the alleged shooter was because they did not have a key. Later reports have said the door may not have been locked, but the police on scene did not try to enter the classroom.

  • Edwards said a social worker has been hired for each of the district’s 25 high schools. MCPS this year pledged to hire a position for each of the schools after students asked for more mental health resources. Previously, the positions oversaw several schools.

  • MCPS staff said about 240 construction projects of varying significance were completed across the district over the summer. Most notably, the district on Monday will open its newest school, Harriet R. Tubman Elementary School in Gaithersburg. With the opening, the district’s total number of schools increases to 210. The district also completed a new building for Odessa Shannon Middle School, formerly Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School, in Silver Spring. 

  • As of Tuesday morning, MCPS had 187 full-time teaching vacancies across the district, 93 of which were for special education teachers, according to Director of Human Capital Management Travis Wiebe. There were another 38 part-time unfilled positions and 442 support staff vacancies. Of the support staff openings, 215 were for paraeducators, Wiebe said. To a round of applause from staff members present, Wiebe said MCPS has only about 1% of its positions unfilled across the county. 

  • Each high school will open with a “wellness” space this year and each is expected to be fully staffed by early October, according to Student Health and Wellness Coordinator Stephanie Iszard. That means there will be a case manager, mental health specialist and youth development specialist at each school two days per week. The staffing is provided by the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. 

  • MCPS projects that its enrollment headed into the first day of school is about 1,700 more than at the same time last year. MCPS leaders said recently they expect to have about 160,000 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.