MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. — Montgomery County Public Schools will start its 2020-2021 school year with distance learning that will be done online, according to a draft plan for the district that was sent out to its community.
The first two to four weeks of the school year for the district will most likely be online as part of the phased reopening that starts on August 31, 2020.
"There are not great options here from which to choose," Smith said during a July 15 virtual call about the district's plans to return, stressing that the current models are a "rough draft."
Phases may be adjusted based on changing public health conditions and implementation experience, said the district in its drafted plan.
The board is expected to meet and clarify further plans based on any changing guidelines during their next meeting on August 6. The status of some student activities and sports is expected to be clarified "by the end of July" Smith said July 15, referencing MCPS will work continue to see county guidelines and health measures.
"We have not made a final decision when and if we will go into the school buildings," Smith said. "That will all be driven by the context and the health circumstances in our community."
"The data right now does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe to do at this moment," Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles said.
Montgomery County Public Schools is the largest Maryland school district that encompasses 166,000 students and 24,000 staff members, so a lot of thought has gone into the options that are available.
Within the draft plan, families will have the option to choose a virtual-only format once the final schedule and reopening plan is released.
But a mix of both students in seats and learning from home may be the all-encompassing compromise that Montgomery County Public Schools can offer those who need or want their kids in a physical classroom this year.
From the drafted plan, the district would have schools on an "A/B schedule" by grade level, student last names and home address.
The logistical approach could help keep people safer, and it helps kids still be a part of distance/online learning if Maryland officials move all school curriculums to digital due to a major outbreak of cases in the state.
Following the announcement of the plan, Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations President Cynthia Simonson said she approved of how the county would allow parents to decide the best option for their children.
"I think one of the things that has been feeding a lot of anxiety for parents is not having any idea of what’s going to happen," she said. "I’m grateful to Montgomery County that they will be providing a choice to families. It’s important to recognize that very few families will be choosing a best option. Instead, we’ll be looking at what is the least destructive option.”
The drafted plan from the school system also detailed the cleaning and sanitizing guidelines that will be in place across the county.
The school district will present its plans to the Montgomery County Board of Education on Tuesday.
Moving forward, Cynthia Simonson hoped organizers and the community could come together for a successful school year ahead.
"The best we’re going to be able to do is to mitigate the risks. We’re not going to be able to eliminate the risks. This is a global pandemic," she said. "Being patient with the school system as all as these things are getting worked out is probably the biggest task ahead of our parents today.”
Montgomery County gave WUSA9 a first look on Thursday, as school and health officials try to figure it out.
But there's still plenty of debate among parents and teachers about the safest way for children to learn during a pandemic.
"We can sit in the school bus, every other seat," Essie McGuire, associate superintendent for operations, said as she had staffers demonstrate how empty a school bus would be under the health guidelines.
She said capacity would be cut to just 25%.
Once they got to school, students would have to line up outside six feet apart. At College Gardens Elementary in Rockville, workers have already marked off spots at intervals outside the front door.
In a kindergarten classroom, there would be room for just 12 to 15 students.
"These tables are six feet long, so if you have a chair at either end of them, they would be six feet apart," McGuire said inside a crowded classroom.
In higher grades, lunch would be in the classroom and there would be fewer children.
"The desks are configured again to be about six feet apart," McGuire said, showing off second-grade classroom.
But if the tour of College Gardens was designed to calm worried parents, administrators still have a lot of work to do.
"I would say we're extremely concerned," Adam Tamashasky, a writing lecturer at American University and a father of three girls in Montgomery County schools, said. "I have yet to see evidence that things have changed in some significant way in terms of vaccine, or effective treatment, or rapid testing or tracing."
Ella Tamashasky, 14, is in middle school, and she's been listening to her mom, a physician assistant who has treated patients with COVID-19.
"I'm kind of worried about going back, because my school, in particular, has very small classrooms and hallways," Ella said. "I don't really feel like there's a way, at least right now, that we can do that safely."
Some parents are convinced school buildings can reopen safely and they're eager for that to happen.
"They need to go back to school, I strongly, strongly believe this," Helen Barold, a cardiologist and single mom, said. "It’s hard for women to maintain their jobs and still have their kids learning. So we’re seeing our country set back decades because of this."
Barold said she's been able to safely reopen her medical practice, and she's convinced that in consultation with medical experts, the schools can do the same thing.
You can learn more about Montgomery County Public Schools and what the district is doing during the COVID-19 pandemic here.