MCPS, Blake Plan for Reopening; Community Split on Decision to Send Students Back

Like the rest of the county, the Blake community seems to be split 50/50 as to whether they should accept the Board of Education’s tentative plans for returning to in-person learning. 

The Board of Education announced Thursday, Dec. 3 it would delay its decision on finalizing any reopening plans given the worsening COVID-19 metrics, thereby giving MCPS families more time to debate and decide on showing support for the Board’s plans—something they have been doing since Nov. 11 when the preference survey was first sent out. 

The updated reopening plans regarding high school students currently include a set of phases that would see some groups of students returning to school sooner than others. Should the county’s case rate steadily decline, younger learners and a select group of high schoolers will be introduced to in-person instruction sooner rather than later, meaning most high school students will not be reintegrated until Phase 2 or 3. 

The breakdown of which students reenter school in which phase is as follows: 

Phase 1: Students who are not on track to graduate, students specific special education programs and CTE students, like those in the Edison program (with 12th grade priority)

Phase 2: All other 11th and 12th grade students

Phase 3: All other 9th and 10th grade students 

Phase 1 can begin when the 14-day average new case rate is in the 70-140 range (see MCPS’s Health Metrics). Montgomery County has seen 366 new cases in the past two weeks. With that in mind, MCPS is hoping to launch Phase 1 into play Feb, 1, a few weeks after its original Jan. 12 goal, but everything is still subject to change. 

If and when it is safe to return to in-person instruction, those students who do want to return may find themselves in blended classrooms. In one model, roughly 15 students would be in a classroom with two teachers teaching different subjects side-by-side. Teachers could also find themselves instructing to students both in the classroom and on a screen. Sinclair says the Board is looking at having pods of students with teachers rotating, continuing with the virtual Wednesday schedule, having A/B days or only having half the alphabet attend live instruction certain days, etc. Not much has been concretely decided. 

With regards to how teachers will be able to instruct within the Board’s framework, social studies teacher Pamela Rowe does not think adjusting to blended learning will be much of an issue for her. “If there’s a camera in my classroom, I can do it,” she says. “It can’t be any more challenging than what we’re doing right now, and I have that mastered. I have some pretty lively class sessions going right now through Zoom, but I like to get up and move around and lean over students’ shoulders to see what they are doing and have students in small groups working collaboratively. I like to be present for all the activity generated in class during live instruction.”  

However, how well teachers can readjust to in-person learning will not matter if students do not feel comfortable enough to be in the classroom. Right now, about 55% of Blake families who have responded to the survey indicate they are not comfortable having their students return to school. 

Sophomore Karina Crespo believes MCPS’ reopening plan does not reassure her enough about her safety to want to go back to in-person learning. “I don’t think that being in contact with a bunch of students like we did before would be helpful,” she says. “It just worries me thinking of how many students are going to be together and how dangerous it could be.”

Reflecting the 45% of families who say they are comfortable with a return to in-person learning following the Board’s proposal is Maria Palacios, mother of sophomore Sofia Palacios. Palacios says she would prefer her children go to school in-person in February. “My preference is definitely for a hybrid schedule where kids go to school at least two days a week where it’s like a Monday-Tuesday and then Wednesday they have time to clean the school. The second group would go Thursday-Friday,” she says.

The decision on whether or not we get to go back to school is solely dependent on whether or not the region’s COVID case rates decline. 

The debate over reopening and personal comfort levels with doing so also brings up deeper questions about the sanitation and maintenance of MCPS schools. Mrs. Rowe wonders how MCPS would make our schools safe when they could not take care of our basic necessities pre-COVID. “It shouldn’t take a pandemic to alert MCPS to these [sanitation] needs. In one survey I got from the county they asked if I would be able to bring my own plexiglass dividers. Seriously? No. Also, I doubt there will be hand sanitizer for each classroom. Simply having it in the school is not good enough, again that’s irrespective of COVID-19.” 

Sinclair says that as elementary school students’ return will be prioritized, and the 20905 zip code where Blake is located does not have a relatively high case count, it is unlikely that Blake will be high on the list for ventilation maintenance. Countywide, however, MCPS has commissioned studies of ventilation systems, ductwork, the frequency of air turnover, and has begun to upgrade air filters. 

Another item to consider with returning to in-person instruction is the social interaction part of the high school experience. Sinclair says he and the rest of the staff have been planning intensively for a return to in-person learning, looking at senior banquet, prom, graduation, and sports. “There’s an entire workgroup at the county level that’s looking at what that senior year activity should be like,” Sinclair says. “We’ve already had discussions and we as a school have gone ahead and planned our senior banquet in the late winter/early spring and our senior prom. We’ve got dates and venues. We’re currently planning graduation. We’re planning as many things as we can, with the hopes that metrics will be positive enough to make them happen. We need to look at things we can do to increase that community, that sense of community, that sense of belonging, that social interaction in a safe way.”

Virtual alternatives to in-person events are being planned as well in case the metrics are not acceptable. Sinclair also acknowledges that seeing other surrounding counties like Frederick send their kids back to play in-person sports is difficult on Blake student athletes. The County and Blake are looking at what practices and tournaments should look like, what the revised playing schedules should be, as well as how athletes will be transported to events. However, in-person activities and a return to school are not likely at the moment. 

Principal Bob Sinclair understands both the frustrations and the concerns the community face when it comes to returning to school. Sinclair himself, however, hopes for the return of in-person instruction. “I do know the staff in the system is really set to try to get things back to normal for kids,” Sinclair adds. “But a lot of it just falls on the metrics. And it’s just sad to see those numbers continuing to go off right now.”

Update: The Board of Education decided on a final iteration of their reopening plan today. Phase 1 will begin Feb. 1 if the metrics are favorable. There will have to be a 14-day raw average new case rate of 105-157. MCPS has seen 573 cases in the past two weeks. According to MCPS SMOB Nick Asante’s latest Instagram post, “All school buildings will open, all buildings will have state-required health professionals, transportation can be provided to all students who requested it [in the preference survey], a partial in-person experience can be provided to every student who selected one [in the preference survey],” and physical distancing and masks will be required [when Phase 1 goes into effect]. Now, in the modified Phase 1, sixth graders and seniors may be considered for priority return.