Montgomery County Public School leaders discuss school closures and COVID-19 decision making

After nearly two weeks of parents voicing frustrations, Montgomery County Public School leaders have shared more details behind how COVID-19 school closure decisions are being made during this latest Omicron variant wave. 

The decision process was announced in a two-hour virtual session, held on Wednesday, with MCPS by the Montgomery County Council’s Education and Culture Committee.

16 Montgomery Co. schools going virtual due to COVID related reasons

One of the questions parents across the county have been asking is what exact metrics or thresholds are MCPS leaders using to help weigh whether a school should transition to virtual learning? 

The school system previously only named the "five factors" it is reviewing. Those five factors are: COVID transmission, student absences, staff absences, unserved bus routes and unfilled substitute requests.

On Wednesday, when pressed by the county council members for more specifics, MCPS’ head of Teaching and Learning, Ruschelle Reuben, noted that while it’s not an exact metric or threshold – nor can it be applied the same to every school --  MCPS is looking at whether those five factors hit anywhere from 10-25%.

"Those are percent ranges that are significant that we know, that is having an impact on our schools," said Reuben.

MCPS also talked about using different means, like a Google document, to get status updates from schools. They mentioned how school’s leaders have been reviewing data collected twice-a-week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, to monitor and review 3-day trends.

"Nothing replaces in person interaction with children. Our data has shown us that we’ve seen it in terms of some of the struggles that we’ve witnessed with our students returning this fall. And so protecting that interest was absolutely our priority, but not at the risk of making sure that we’re not doing everything in our power to ensure that our schools are safe," said MCPS Interim Superintendent Dr. Monifa McKnight.

Montgomery County community conversation falls flat for MCPS parents, students

Lakelands Park Middle School (LPMS), is one of the 16 schools slated to go virtual on Thursday. The school’s principal shared a community message on Tuesday that included a nine-page PDF with a table outlining specific percentages hit in each of the "five factors." For example, LPMS noted their staff absences three-day average was 17.52%.

One of the first questions asked to MCPS by Councilmember Rice (the Council Education & Culture Committee Chair) addressed how virtual learning would be any better if so many teachers are out?

MCPS noted that the staffing included in that staff absences figure, also includes support staff, cafeteria staff and bus drivers.

"We can have every single teacher show up to a building to serve buildings, but if we don’t have our cafeteria workers, our building services worker, out para educators, our bus drivers, than we still cannot serve our students. It’s a menu of services that have to be in place in order for us to operate and provide an adequate learning environment for our students," said Dr. McKnight.

Reuben said  many of the teachers who are testing positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic and able to work virtually.

As for why that information was not shared county-wide, Dr. McKnight said she feels it’s the community impacted by those decisions that needs to understand what the numbers are.

Specifics were not immediately provided, but the council was told over 103 child care facilities have been identified as locations with space to host equity hubs for those students learning now going to virtual instruction.

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MCPS also affirmed starting this week, parents who do not feel it’s safe for their children to be in the school building do have a virtual option – and the child’s absence will be excused – at least until January 31st. The parents must notify their school.

Asked why MCPS switched virtual learning from 14-days to 10, the county’s Acting Chief Health Officer, Dr. James Bridgers, said the county lowered virtual instruction time to 10 days following the Maryland Department of Health and State Department of Education’s updated guidance.

However, Dr. Bridgers said the county is holding tight at 10 days because of high transmission. He referenced the American Medical Association, "suggested in rebuttal to CDC’s recent guidance that 34% or more individuals are still infections after 10-days – after 5-days, I should say."

Asked how MCPS compares to other area school districts on substitute rates, MCPS’ Dr. Helen Nixon said it depends on the date. Since the Thanksgiving break to now, Nixon said MCPS is at about a 35%-45% fill rate. 

Compared to Fairfax County, Dr. Nixon said, "they are roughly at a 45-50% fill rate as well. Sometimes they get as high as 60, but they have the same struggles with substitutes as we do."