MCPS backpedals on threshold indicators as numbers continue to soar and classes lack coverage

Heather Jauquet

Parents and teachers demand transparency while MCPS points fingers and lacks consistency

Before students went home for winter break, schools across Montgomery County reminded them to bring home their chrome books, chargers, school books, and other school supplies. This move gave a semblance that Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) was looking ahead and ready to make the needed transition to virtual instruction as COVID-19 positivity rates soared across the county.

On Tuesday morning, January 4, at an 8am media briefing, Dr. Monifa McKnight shared new threshold metrics to move schools to virtual learning. Eleven schools were identified as red schools, pushing them into 14 calendar days of virtual instruction, which began on Wednesday, January 5. MCPS recognized 89 schools with 3% to 5% positivity rate for staff and students. 

The move to categorize schools and provide visual data gave parents, teachers, and staff the sense that MCPS was putting a plan in place. However, it was reiterated that schools moved into the red zone with 5%+ positivity rate would not automatically trigger a transition to virtual learning. Instead, MCPS, in conjunction with input from Montgomery County's Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), would make a school-by-school decision. In a move towards transparency, school data was provided by a link on MCPS’ main page to be updated daily. However, it was clear by day two that all the schools were rapidly moving into the red zone as determined by the metrics put into place by MCPS. 

Radio silence after positivity rates soar at 126 schools

By Thursday night, a mere two days after MCPS shared their plan with the public, there was radio silence after 126 schools moved to the red category with more than 5% transmission rate. Parents frantically began contacting schools to find out if they would move to virtual, but principals could only shrug their shoulders and tell them they were awaiting next steps from the county.

Snow closures canceled a Friday morning meeting between MCPS principals and senior officials. However, the word from MCPS to principals said, “DHHS does not want MCPS to move the next round of schools to virtual yet.” There was no other explanation.

In a community update provided January 7, MCPS backpedaled their earlier strategy of categorizing schools by threshold, stating they received clarification from the state on the appropriate use of thresholds for transitions to virtual learning. In their communication with parents, MCPS said, “Moving forward, MCPS and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) will examine schools on a case-by case basis to determine if any particular schools needs to transition to virtual learning for a designated period of time.”  

The 11 schools who already transitioned to virtual learning were informed in the same community update, “The 11 school communities that are currently engaged in virtual learning will receive more information by Sunday afternoon regarding next steps,” leaving parents and schools to pivot with the changes at the last minute.

Who made the changes: MCPS or the State of Maryland?

“These modifications result from clarifications from the star of Maryland on the appropriate use of threshold for transition to virtual learning—and bring MCPS into closer alignment with how large school systems across the country are keeping schools safe amidst similar COVID-related challenges.” —Montgomery County Schools Community Update, January 7, 2021

MCPS pointed their fingers, citing Maryland's clarification of thresholds to change their decision back to in-person instruction. However, the school system's decision to remove thresholds as a quantifying factor in transitioning schools to virtual contradicts the wording from the state website.

Savvy teacher finds threshold and outbreak information from the state

In light of today’s announcement from MCPS, one savvy MCPS teacher found the state's definition of cohort and school outbreak on the maryland.gov website.

Cohort outbreak:

  • Three or more laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases among students/teachers/staff in a specified group with onsets (or, if asymptomatic, collection dates) within a 14-day period, and who are epidemiologically linked in the school setting, but not household contacts.

School outbreak:

  • Five or more classrooms or cohorts with cases from separate households that meet the cohort outbreak definition that occurs within 14 days; OR
  • 5% or more unrelated students/teachers/staff have confirmed COVID-19 within a 14 day period [minimum of 10 unrelated students/teachers/staff].

In reviewing the information, it should be noted that according to the data, the following MCPS schools, as of January 5, are identified as having an outbreak:

  • Clarksburg Elementary School 10 positive cases
  • Clarksburg High School 101 positive cases
  • Farmland Elementary School 3 positive cases
  • Goshen Elementary School 8 positive cases
  • Poolesville High School 64 positive cases
  • Stedwick Elementary School 2 positive cases
  • Walt Whitman High School 15 positive cases
  • Waters Landing Elementary School 5 positive cases

The data found on Maryland’s Coronavirus page is based on local health department reports to the Maryland Department of Health (MDH), which may be revised if additional information becomes available. The data is updated weekly on Wednesdays during the 10 a.m. hour. MDH continuously evaluates its data and reporting systems and updates as more data becomes available.

Strong leadership needed 

MCPS is lacking transparency, consistency, and stability when strong leadership is sorely needed to reassure parents and support teachers.  

Parents and staff are demanding transparency from MCPS. The following questions, out of many, need answers:

  • Who is making the decisions? 
  • Who made the changes the plan explained to the MCPS community on January 4? Was it MCPS under the guidance of the state, or was it the local health department? 
  • Will the 11 schools that pivoted to virtual have to once again move to in-person after reassuring parents that the move to virtual was to keep their children safe?

Boomerang decision making

The boomerang decision-making is causing a lack of faith in the school system as students are hapless victims of a school system unable to provide strong leadership and consistency. The ones suffering are those teaching on the front lines and their students.  

Teachers and parents alike want transparency, strong leadership, and consistency. They want MCPS to stop moving the goalposts. 

This article is a multi-part series on how MCPS is handling the pandemic in its school system.

What do you think of the leadership in MCPS? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Heather Jauquet has a Masters degree as a Reading Specialist from Johns Hopkins University. She holds a highly qualified certification to teach grades 1-8 and specialized reading instruction for grades K-12.

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Certified educator K-12 and Reading Specialist with a focus on the adolescent brain. I write about how educational decisions affect parents, students, and staff. As an educator and parent I also focus on community events for the whole family.

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