On February 9, 2021 The Montgomery County Board of Education voted to a phase in return to school buildings for students attending Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) beginning on March 1st, 2021.
(Photo Credit: Deb Sullivan)
Two weeks later, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) held a car rally with the support of 900 teachers and community members demanding a safe return to schools and waiting to reopen until all teachers are vaccinated.
Schools began making plans and held meetings with their communities to share with their plans for simultaneous in-school and virtual instruction. Every school’s plan looks different based on the needs of their students.
"We didn't make the decisions, we made the plans based on the decision given to us.
In response to questions about decisions posed by parents during one of the informational meetings regarding the return to in-person instruction, a staff member said, “We didn’t make the decisions, we made the plans based on the decision given to us.” She also stated, “Don’t compare us to other schools. Every school makes the decision based on their individual school’s needs.”
There is still a small group of parents demanding a quicker phase-in of students and a return to in-person instruction as MCPS lags behind other Maryland counties in their plans to return all grade levels to the buildings.
On March 1, 2021 students in special education and career and technical education programs returned to school buildings kicking off the phase-in of in-person instruction, despite teachers still scrambling for vaccinations and the unanswered questions regarding ventilation.
As doubts linger about the safety of teachers and students returning for in-person instruction, a COVID case at a Damascus middle school was reported at the end of the first week of students returning to the building.
In a community letter, Principal Louise Worthington of John T. Baker Middle School, shared that an individual tested positive for the coronavirus. No details are given if the infected individual was a staff member or student, only that the last known attendance in the building was on the second day of school on March 2, 2021.
Principal Worthington proceeds to share that those who were in close contact with the individual were informed and advised to quarantine for 14 days and tells parents to monitor their child for symptoms of COVID-19 such as fever, cough, shortness of breath. She reminds parents that if their child develops any of these symptoms, “…do not send them to school,” but instead directs them to contact their healthcare provider. If a student has symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19, they will not be able to return to the building until they are medically cleared.
MCPS and Baker Middle School are following Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) guidance and contact tracing process. Only those students who were in direct contact with the infected individual were contacted and notified directly. Those not notified directly do not have to quarantine and may continue with in-person instruction.
The letter notes that “close contact” does not include all other individual on the same floor or in the same building as a positive individual, unless the infected individual was within 6 feet of the another for a prolonged period of time or having direct contact with infected person such as coughing.
The case at the Damascus middle school does not instill confidence as teachers worry that parents will continue to send in sick children as they did pre-pandemic. It is precisely this reason that the MCEA has demanded a safe return for all those returning to school buildings.
Schools will not do temperature checks for students before they enter the building. There has been discussion, that schools will be sending home thermometers and asking parents to do a temperature on their children before sending them to school. The acquisition and distribution of thermometers is of yet, unconfirmed.
One thing is clear, parents and schools will have to work together to ensure the health and safety of both staff and students and to mitigate outbreaks. It will be a combined community effort to keep everyone safe. The responsibility cannot rely solely on school administration and staff. If parents want to send their children back to school, they need to support the schools’ efforts for a healthy return to in-person instruction.