Students, teachers skeptical of MCPS’ coronavirus policies

MCPS+has+eliminated+the+COVID-case+benchmark+the+school+district+previously+used+to+flag+individual+schools+for+possible+virtual+learning.

Christina Xiong

MCPS has eliminated the COVID-case benchmark the school district previously used to flag individual schools for possible virtual learning.

By Sonya Rashkovan, Walt Whitman High School

This story was reported before MCPS issued a statement January 9 regarding updated policies with respect to COVID-19. The Black & White will update our reporting as this story evolves.

To respect wishes for privacy, some sources’ names have been withheld.

Superintendent Monifa McKnight and Montgomery County Acting Chief Health Officer James Bridgers announced Friday that MCPS has eliminated the COVID-case benchmark the school district previously used to flag individual schools for possible virtual learning.

MCPS officials announced December 20 that if at least five percent of a school’s students and staff tested positive for COVID-19, the district would work with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services to research aspects of that outbreak and consider moving the school to virtual learning for 14 days. On January 5, MCPS officials shifted 11 schools into virtual learning since these schools had exceeded their “5%” case benchmark as of January 3. Within the next 48 hours, 115 other schools, including Whitman, had also exceeded the benchmark. McKnight and Bridgers signaled in their announcement that the 126 schools would be continuing in-person learning into the upcoming week. 

As of January 8, Whitman had 176 reported active coronavirus cases, which means that 7.95% of the school is infected. 

In light of the removal of the benchmark, one Whitman teacher said they believe that “teachers don’t matter” to officials in power.

“I wonder if the money I make is worth the stress and anxiety. I know that I will end up getting COVID at school,” the teacher said. “I could take COVID home to a loved one and they could die. And that’s the part that makes me not able to breathe.”

The change comes on the heels of an increasing number of school districts’ decisions to move to virtual learning due to the highly-transmissible omicron variant. Two other large school districts in Maryland, Prince George’s County Public Schools and Baltimore County Public schools, recently made the switch to virtual learning.

The variant also appears to have created bus driver shortages. This past week, MCPS was operating as of Thursday with 90 fewer active routes than typical. 

Junior Shreekanya Mitra feels that MCPS is “reckless and inconsiderate” for removing the five percent threshold, she said. Mitra believes that closing schools for 14 days is the most efficient solution to the rising COVID cases. 

“They are jeopardizing the health and safety of teachers, students and families in our county,” Mitra said. “As they continue to seek solutions, more and more members of our community are being infected, which could be easily addressed by switching to virtual for a few weeks.”

MCPS leadership has encouraged all students to get vaccinated, wear masks, get tested and socialize outdoors rather than indoors. Athletes are also required to get vaccinated before playing. However, some students are concerned that if the school district doesn’t implement any new approaches to halt the spread of the virus, the current spike in cases will become more severe.

“They failed to consider how quickly the cases would spread, and I’m surprised that MCPS isn’t taking any new approaches,” one Whitman student said. “They mentioned many measures that are already in place, but clearly that wasn’t enough, and cases will continue to rise.”

The student said they feel that the school district lacks a “real plan” to control the spread of COVID-19. 

On the other side of the debate, many parent and community groups are pressuring the school district to continue in-person learning. The organization Together Again MCPS stated in a joint national petition to the Maryland State Department of Education, MCPS and other school organizations that no benchmark should be used to close in-person learning.

“We cannot move backwards: we must move forward and restore normalcy,” the signatories wrote in the petition, “which centers on in-person school for all kids across the country, in educational environments devoid of unnecessary restrictions on children.”

The state of COVID-19 in the community has created anxiety for some students like senior Sydney Spottiswood, who believes that suspending the five percent benchmark was a “terrible idea.”

“It’s not only dangerous to teachers, who cannot take days off due to sub shortages, but to students who may be immunocompromised or have family members that are immunocompromised,” Spottiswood said. “I think the BOE needs to step up their game and have students do virtual school to protect them when current county regulations cannot.”

This story was originally published on The Black & White on January 9, 2022.