MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. — Leaders in Montgomery County gathered on Zoom Wednesday afternoon to address Montgomery County Public Schools' response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in omicron cases.
It's been a hectic start to a new year for MCPS. Less than two weeks into 2022, MCPS has had snow days, changing guidance that determines when a school goes virtual amid a COVID surge and a shortage of bus drivers.
But, amid confusion and pressure from staff and families, MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight, Board of Education President Brenda Wolff, County Executive Marc Elrich, Montgomery County Health and Human Services Director Dr. Raymond Crowel, and other health and school leaders gathered in a virtual town hall to answer questions from the community about how schools are dealing with the latest COVID surge.
"I hear and acknowledge and I recognize the concerns [from staff, families and others]...we hope that tonight will take some of these concerns head on," McKnight said.
On Friday, MCPS announced it would no longer use a threshold of 5% or more positive COVID-19 cases in a school for determining if the school should shift to virtual learning. The interim superintendent on Wednesday said the change was due to changing state guidance for determining if a school should go virtual.
Now MCPS will have a school go virtual on a case-to-case basis. School and health leaders will look at factors like staff absences, bus driver shortages and a number of other issues when weighing the possibility of virtual learning, McKnight said. Dr. James Bridgers, Montgomery County's acting health officer, said the 5% threshold was not an absolute threshold anyway.
Community members have criticized MCPS leaders for confusing guidance. McKnight defended changing the guidance because what is known about the virus is constantly changing and evolving.
McKnight also defended keeping students in schools after a recent Change.org petition calling for MCPS to go 100% virtual collected more than 16,000 signatures online. She said students thrive when they can learn in person.
"We are trying to balance between a virus that will not let us go...with the health of students by keeping them in schools," said Health and Human Services Director Dr. Raymond Crowel
This week, Montgomery County DHHS has made 120,000 rapid tests available to MCPS students and staff, according to Crowel.
Montgomery County DHHS Emergency Preparedness Manager said the omicron surge has made the demand for testing even more urgent and 1 million more tests have been ordered for the county. He said more testing is going to schools this week and the demand also remains high at places like childcare centers.
As more rapid tests are available for families at schools and libraries, O'Donnell hopes these tests will help people know their COVID status and then take appropriate health measures.
MCPS Chief of Finance and Operations Jeanie Dawson said at schools tests are being administrated through health rooms by school nurses and also randomly for asymptomatic students. Random testing is being used to help with the school's ever-evolving guidance concerning practices like quarantining.
As students are able to get rapid tests, Bridgers assured families that the tests are accurate and effective.
Dawson said more PPE has also been delivered to schools to address the omicron surge. Every student in MCPS middle and high schools can now get a pack of 10 KN95 masks, Dawson said. They are also delivering appropriately sized KN95 masks to elementary schools as well.
The KN95 masks students are receiving are effective and are not counterfeit, Dawson said.
County Executive Marc Elrich said when it comes to families who want schools closed and families who want schools open, he believes it's a 50/50 split based on the feedback he's received.
"Your work is our work," Elrich told school leaders. "There is no roadmap. There are no simple answers and things change on a fly."
Councilmember Craig Rice, a member of the council's education committee, said the council is committed to providing schools whatever funding is deemed necessary as the pandemic continues.
Rice said his child's American Sign Language teacher fell ill amid the pandemic and he recognized it's hard to find a substitute for a specialized class like this one. "I do understand that this is something well beyond something that we have the silver bullet to."
Leaders continued discussing staffing shortages, noting the problem is not exclusive to Montgomery County. MCPS Chief of Human Resources and Development Helen Nixon said MCPS has a robust recruitment effort. More than 300 people attended an MCPS job fair before winter break.
According to Nixon, the Department of Transportation helps MCPS recruit bus and onboard new drivers. MCPS is keeping its options open with recruiting bus drivers, especially retirees.
Nixon said MCPS is talking to Ride On, the county's public bus transportation, as well as the Maryland National Guard about getting more drivers to help bring students to school.
MCPS currently has a hiring pipeline of about 69 new people going through the process of getting in the system, according to Dawson.
Dawson said administrators are working to ease stress teachers are feeling as they have to sacrifice planning periods to cover classes where teachers are out sick. She said report card submission deadlines were recently pushed back for teachers.
"This is a time when we really have to be side by side with each other," Dawson said.
McKnight said the central office is committed to answering the question, "What do you need?"
She said, "It takes everyone for a school system to operate and for it to function."