by Several Warrior Staff
After almost nine months of virtual learning in MCPS, an end could be in sight. The Board of Education tentatively approved a plan in which a limited number of MCPS students (special education and Career Technology Education programs) could return to in-person schools on January 12, with larger groups phasing in beginning February 1 in the event that outlined health metrics are met. Individual schools and departments would be able to determine the best method of hybrid learning for their students. However, with coronavirus cases rising steadily in Montgomery County, the Board has invited MCPS to reconsider both the metrics required for opening as well as the progression in which students will arrive in schools, possibly emphasizing the return of younger learners first. MCPS has promised to supply necessary Personal Protective Equipment to schools, prioritizing the safety of students and staff.
OPEN FOR SOME IN-PERSON INSTRUCTION
Elementary Students Need In-Person
by Tori Newby ‘22
MCPS should make an effort to reopen elementary schools for the second semester, particularly grades K-3. Younger students are unable to receive the same type of instruction and stimulation as they would in a classroom, and while high school and even middle school students can more easily complete classes online, elementary school students are lacking in vital instruction. Current first graders have only been in actual school for a little over a semester until schools closed in March, and kindergarteners have never been in their school buildings. It is at these young ages in which the fundamentals are taught, and it is difficult to learn to read and write via computer screen. Holding a pencil or scissors, for example, are skills that are taught in kindergarten, and these students will fall further behind if virtual learning continues for the remainder of the school year.
Also, all elementary schoolers, but particularly students in grades K-3, cannot be left home alone while a parent is at work, so parents must either stay home or find another option for their children during the day. The younger a student is, the more likely they will need assistance with computer use and schoolwork; in-person schooling can relieve this burden on working parents. In general, younger children do not carry and transmit the virus as often or as easily as older students, so public safety would not be as compromised as it would be if older students go back to school. Assuming a hybrid option is implemented for elementary school students, virtual days can consist of possibly asynchronous work, or certain teachers could be designated for online learning to limit the amount of work teachers must complete to prepare in-person and virtual lessons.
Gradual Return Has To Start Sometime
by Colin Horan ‘21
MCPS should reopen their schools to a certain extent but would have to be very precise in doing so in order to give much-needed assistance to students as well as easing the burden of a potential fuller return to in-person instruction. Schools should only be open to elementary schoolers, special needs students, and ESOL students as they most desperately need the benefits of in-person learning as shown by end of marking period reports coming from the county. Should Covid-19 numbers begin to improve, then schools could gradually open up to more and more students over the course of the second semester.
The key to a future return to in-person schooling is laying the groundwork early. Any student eligible to return would have to opt into in-person learning, which would have to start at the beginning of the second semester. The majority of MCPS students undergo some kind of schedule or teacher change in the new semester so getting new teachers would not be any worse of an adjustment than online school. The next adjustment would be that teachers would also choose to only be online or only be in-person so teachers would not be overburdened trying to teach two times at once with online and in-person. The science has shown that schools, especially elementary schools, do not spread Covid-19 nearly as much as one would think, and students cannot have any more invaluable learning experience wasted. Lastly, should Covid-19 vaccines become available to the general public, there is even more reason for schools to reopen.
Look at the Evidence
by Seth Kauffman ‘21
In the midst of a pandemic where restaurants have been forced to close, sports programs cut, and students sent home, many experts argue that we have lost sight of what really matters: education. School systems nationwide, including MCPS, must send students back into buildings for in-person instruction as soon as possible. Coast-to-coast in-person learning is “not just a realistic goal, it has to be the goal,” according to Joseph Allen, an associate professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and director of the school’s Healthy Buildings Program. Simply put, the data shows that in-person instruction does not cause virus outbreaks in the community.
With the proper measures in place, it is possible to safely bring MCPS students back for the second semester. Danielle Allen, a Washington Post contributing columnist, and Ashish Jha, a physician and dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, conclude in a Washington Post article that “the latest data have failed to provide compelling evidence that in-person schooling leads to meaningful increases in infections in communities.” If the necessary precautions are made, such as instituting mask mandates for teachers and students, installing hand-washing stations, and upgrading ventilation systems, in-person instruction can occur with little risk of transmission.
Additionally, “we must recognize that the schools fill essential functions in our society — education, child care and provision of nutrition and health,” said Allen and Jha. Keeping schools closed will only hurt the millions of children nationwide who rely on schools for healthy meals and a safe place to be during the day. There is no replacement for the level of collaboration and interaction that in-person schooling provides. “Remote instruction generates large learning gaps and links to higher rates of mental illness, while depriving children of formative social and peer relationships.” When MCPS decided to close schools for the whole first semester, the social and emotional impacts of online learning were unknown. Now the evidence is there; virtual learning just isn’t working. We need to go back.
If Other Districts Are Doing It, So Should MCPS
by Nick Schade ‘23
MCPS should open schools in February with a hybrid schedule that divides and isolates each grade into as many separate groups as possible. In schools currently open across the United States, it has been found that limiting how many students are in school at once works best in preventing the spread of Covid-19.
In the state of Texas, all schools are open for in-person learning, as ordered by the state government. Students in Texas can choose to receive online learning, but those who opt in for in-person learning all attend school together five days a week in a single group. The daily schedules instituted by schools in Texas are also similar to those used before the coronavirus pandemic. However, such a method has been proven to be unsafe and should not be imitated by MCPS.
In the state of Virginia, half of the schools statewide are using in-person learning, but in hybrid schedules combined with online learning. In Virginia’s Franklin County, students attend in-person learning only twice a week, and each grade is separated into two groups that attend on separate days. On Wednesday, all have online learning while schools are cleaned and sanitized. In Pittsylvania County, students in grades 4-12 follow a similar schedule, but students in pre-k up to 3rd grade attend school together as one whole, instead of in two separate groups. Additionally, in Pittsylvania County, the pre-k through 3rd grade students also attend physical school on separate weeks from grades 4 through 12. While students in Pittsylvania County spend less time in physical school than students in Franklin County, their school district has still reported 12 cases of Covid-19, six of which originating from elementary schools. In contrast, Franklin County has only reported 4 cases. MCPS should adopt a hybrid schedule similar to that of Franklin County, which focuses more on limiting who is attending in-person learning at a time than limiting when students will attend in-person learning.
DO NOT RETURN TO IN-PERSON INSTRUCTION
Hybrid Schedule Won’t Work
by Lucy Sokol ‘21
Hybrid learning (synchronized learning that teaches both in-person and online learners simultaneously) is a schedule that will simply not work out effectively. Montgomery County, a county ranked in the top 30 best public schools in the United States, should not consider hybrid learning as it increases the likelihood of students and teachers contracting the virus, and will overwork teachers.
According to Montgomery County Media, as of December 9, the Maryland Department of Health reported 343 new COVID-19 cases in Montgomery County. The county’s cumulative case count is 37,194. With a county in the middle of a new surge of Covid cases, more in-person interactions will only increase those numbers. Even with lowered capacity in schools and mask requirements, that does not magically make the possibility of contracting and spreading Covid impossible. As a diverse county with a vast range of household incomes and backgrounds, not every family can afford the chances of a household member getting sick. You might think, “Oh they can opt out of hybrid learning,” but even if students or their parents did decide on solely online-learning, increasing numbers will only make public sites such as grocery stores more dangerous.
In “How Hybrid Learning Is (and Is Not) Working During COVID-19: 6 Case Studies,” Mark Lieberman goes into depth about how a variety of different school systems throughout the country are dealing with hybrid learning. Michigan’s Marshal Public Schools in particular have their students split into 5 groups, with each one having their remote learning on a different day of the week. “I would say our teachers are very overwhelmed,” said Beth Ritter, the district’s director of teaching and learning. With missing students each day, it is harder to keep all students on the same page. Full-time virtual students could easily get lost in the mix if teachers don’t put in extra work to engage them. While many school systems are encouraging substitute teachers to work full-time, more than half of them are retired and are at higher risk of catching the virus. Teachers going back and forth between in-person learning and virtual learning are stressed and feel drained. Although hybrid learning is considered an option meant to improve the students who do not work well with online learning, the inconsistency of seeing your teachers in-person does not help students’ learning experience either.
Disadvantaged Families Will Suffer More
by Solaiman Hassanin ‘23
MCPS should not bring back students. Although the vast majority of students are not at a high risk, it would be very difficult for families who may have family members that are vulnerable to the virus, where household contagion could be deadly. Maybe this doesn’t apply to most families, but it is difficult to make school optional because teachers can only either be in school or be on Zoom. Although a half-virtual and half in-person schedule would help mitigate health risks, it still increases the chances of someone catching the virus and then puts people who have vulnerable family members at a disadvantage. Hybrid is the most realistic approach to allow students safely back into schools, but there has to be a way for students to be able to stay at home and learn if in-person learning endangers their family. While it is true that impoverished communities are at a disadvantage when it comes to virtual learning, they are also hit harder by the virus.
The pandemic is as bad as it ever has been. On December 4 the United States hit more than 3,000 daily deaths for the first time, and deaths climbed from about 1,000 deaths a day in November to 2,000-3,000 deaths a day. Cases have continued around 200,000 a day in the whole of the country, and the pandemic has not eased ever since the beginning of fall. Montgomery County Executive Marc Erlich stated on December 9 that the county’s positive test rates have doubled since summer, and proposed a closure of indoor dining facilities. Thankfully local death numbers have stayed low, but why should the county move to risk more cases if positives are climbing? Although in-class learning is superior to virtual learning, MCPS should wait until either the positivity rate decreases or a vaccine is widely distributed.
Wait for the Vaccine for In-Person School To Be Effective
by Tori Martinez ‘23
Coronavirus vaccines have begun rolling out and if MCPS waits till the next school year to re-open, then it will allow students and teachers alike to take advantage of the time from when the vaccine becomes available to the next school year to receive it. If MCPS re-opened in the second semester, some students (and their family members) may have been vaccinated while others might not. It would be in everyone’s best interest for as many students as possible to receive the vaccine before returning to school.
If MCPS schools were to re-open in the second semester there would be the issue of schools needing to create and find a way to implement many new procedures in order to ensure the safety of both students and teachers. For instance, some students returning to in-person learning would require a form of transportation to school, such as a school bus. However, because of Covid-19, MCPS would be tasked with creating a new safe way for kids to ride the bus. Implementing spaced out seating would mean that one bus would be able to seat fewer kids. MCPS would either need more busses or would have to return to staggered start time rather than all students beginning the day at 9 a.m as is the case during virtual learning. Furthermore, it would also be a challenge to try and structure a safe lunch arrangement for kids, because teachers and faculty members would need to constantly monitor the students to make sure that they are adhering to the new social distancing guidelines. Also while eating, students would take off their masks, which would create a higher risk environment. Moreover, if MCPS offered a hybrid model in which students could opt-in or out of attending in-person learning, it would probably become a struggle for teachers to create one lesson plan for online and one for in-person learning while trying to cover content at the same pace throughout all their classes.
The Opt-in/Opt-out Choice Will Create Chaos
by Riley Sandoval ‘22
Re-opening MCPS for in-person instruction will be a difficult and draining task. A decision will be almost impossible to make when half of the students and parents choose to return to the classrooms, while the other half opts for a continuation of virtual learning. The mixed responses would most likely result in some style of hybrid learning. This would put extensive strain on teachers who have to juggle between the two groups of students, while making sure the students in both the classroom and at home still receive a similar education.
MCPS is tasked with deciding whether or not to return to school. For transparency, they invited parents and students to weigh in on a return to school for either in-person or virtual instruction. The survey allowed them to voice their opinions based on the current safety requirements surrounding Covid-19 cases. Parents and students made their decision with their health and safety in mind. Now that the survey is complete, the Board of Education is asking MCPS to reconsider the metrics on the maximum number of cases permitted for in-person learning. If these metrics are changed, parents and students may feel frustrated that their survey response is no longer reflective of the current environment. MCPS would need to offer the opportunity for parents and students to change their survey response if they choose. However, this process of collecting and tallying new survey responses would take weeks when MCPS wants to start in-person instruction on February 2. There is too much up in the air and no concrete way to figure out when it is the right time to return to school buildings. While students may be eager to return to schools, it may be safer and easier to remain online longer until in-person instruction is an option for all.