Three thousand people attended council member Tom Hucker’s virtual town hall at Montgomery County public schools on Sunday afternoon, and hundreds more took to Facebook.
Thirty-six students, parents and staff spoke during the two-hour meeting.
While many other officials were in attendance, only Hucker and Lynn Harris, a school board member, spoke. Neither specifically addressed the comments or answered questions. Hucker said he would forward the video and questions from the meeting to all members of the MCPS Education Council and staff of the Marc Elrich County Executive.
A few speakers urged MCPS to keep schools open, but the vast majority of those who spoke called for a break of at least two weeks during which all schools would go virtual.
One participant, who identified as Jennifer, requested a two-week break from in-person learning. Her child did not have bus transportation, and when she was at school, the student spent time with combined classes watching a movie. Jennifer said her child’s French class was taught by the physical education teacher. After all this, her child waited in a crowded gym at the end of school to be picked up as her bus line was still not working.
Speakers complained about the conflicting messages they were receiving from the school board and Acting Superintendent Monifa McKnight. They said they no longer understood what the criteria are to ensure the safety of students and staff. They also highlighted a lack of sufficient staff which significantly limited the amount of teaching and learning inside school buildings.
âI know so many people who have been exposed. Right now I’m so scared, âsaid Zoe Cantor, senior at Walt Whitman High School. âLunch is a COVID binge,â she said, because no one wears a mask when eating and it’s too cold to eat outside. She urged MCPS to go virtual.
Elaini, a freshman at Richard Montgomery High School, added, “As a student, I fear for my health and safety.”
Laura Stewart, a member of the Montgomery County PTA and parent of a junior at Einstein High School, said that due to absenteeism many classes are combined with minimal adult supervision.
Many parents have spoken of having an immunocompromised family member. They would prefer their student to stay home to learn. A parent said it was unfair that her daughter was marked as absent when the family were too afraid to send her to school.
An MCPS music teacher suggested that more teachers would be available if schools went virtual. Several teachers are in home quarantine but feel well enough to work, she said. âI’m not too sick to teach. I’m just too contagious.
Another music teacher said a third to half of his students at his college were absent this week.
Kathryn, a teacher at Takoma Park Middle School, said that in addition to her normal teaching duties, she spent class lunch with students who were too scared to go to the cafeteria. She spent other periods helping in unsupervised classes. One day his college had 14 teachers with only one replacement available.
âLast week it was wrong,â she said.
A second-grade teacher said that one day last week, a third of her students were absent “due to illness or fear”. However, she added, they were not entitled to virtual learning if they did not provide a positive test.
But Nicole stressed the importance of keeping students in school, noting that she uses the vacation time she receives from her job to replace teaching. âSchool is the safest place,â she says. The spread in the community is much worse than the spread inside the school, she told town hall. Further, she noted, âIf children cannot go to school, parents cannot go to work. “
Currently, 11 of the district’s 209 schools have gone virtual, although the vast majority have passed 5% or more of COVID-19 cases among staff and students. Originally, MCPS said it would assess any school above that 5% to decide whether to switch to virtual learning. But MCPS has since rescinded that statement and that standard.
Harris, a BOE member, told those who spoke that she believed schools could stay open with a good mitigation strategy. However, she gave no details. Her biggest concern is staffing, she said.
Hucker closed the meeting, which was extended by 30 minutes to hear more speakers, noting, âI’m really really overwhelmed. It really is a moment of crisis. “
Only first names have been used in this article for most of the speakers as that is all that was provided during the virtual meeting.
The impacts of COVID-19 on our families, educators and local students have reached a critical point. Join us for an Emergency Virtual Town Hall on Schools to share stories and solutions tomorrow, January 9 at 3 p.m. ET.
– Board Member Tom Hucker (@CmHucker) January 8, 2022