ROCKVILLE, MD — Teachers and parents are voicing their concerns about student and staff safety under Montgomery County Public Schools’ reopening draft plan.
More than a dozen people submitted testimony ahead of Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, in which many said the district cannot afford to reopen schools before COVID-19 — a respiratory disease that has sickened nearly 16,000 Montgomery County residents — is better managed or has a vaccine.
Maryland’s largest school district released its back-to-school action plan on Saturday, which has students returning to school on Aug. 31. All students will take classes online before eventually returning to school on a part-time basis.
School officials say the action plan is subject to change based on community feedback and current health conditions.
Christina Vivian, who has taught in Montgomery County for seven years, believes classes should be held online until at least November, as stated in MCPS’ draft plan. Her concern, however, is possibly getting sick once she returns to the classroom four days a week.
“If teachers are required to be on campus four days a week, and students rotate through phases of two days on campus at a time, teachers will be exposed to all of the students,” Vivian wrote in her testimony.
She also raised concerns about transportation. Under the current plan, 12 students will be allowed on an MCPS general education bus at a time. Priority will be given to elementary and middle school students.
“How are high school students who require transportation supposed to arrive on their designated day? By not busing the entirety of the population, you put many students at a disadvantage,” she wrote.
Marjorie Cohen, a veteran teacher and the parent of two MCPS students, said it would be a violation of the school district’s employee code of conduct if teachers are required to hold in-person classes “while this virus is not under control.”
Citing MCPS’ Employee Code of Conduct, she said employees should refrain from actions that threaten the safety of others, undermines their professional integrity, and/or makes them unfit to perform their duties.
“If schools are to reopen in a physical sense while COVID-19 is not under control, the broader community’s safety will be threatened,” she said. “My professional integrity has been undermined by the sheer fact that I am living in fear about how I am going to do my job in a physical sense and still worry about the risks that I may bring home to my family and children.”
At the end of her testimony, she begged school board members not to make her choose between her job and health.
“For the past 20 years, I have felt respected and safe every day I come to work,” Cohen said. “Please, I beg you, do not put me in a position where I will be torn between doing what is asked of me or doing what I feel is best for me.”
Lisa Menter, a teacher with a son going into second grade, also raised concerns over MCPS’ blended learning approach.
“We have heard over and over again from medical experts that the most common way to transmit the virus is to be in an enclosed space, with a person that is carrying the virus, for 10 to 15 minutes or more. The MCPS plan has elementary school students and staff members in one classroom for seven hours a day, with only a 15-minute break,” she wrote in her testimony. “Yes, masks are required, but masks and 6-foot social distancing will not protect our students when they are all breathing the same classroom air for 6 hours and 45 minutes. And let’s be honest, it will be very difficult for staff members at all grade levels to enforce mask wearing.”
Menter doesn’t believe online learning is a substitute for in-person instruction. But she says it’s a much safer option, given the current public health crisis.
“I want to be back in my classroom — teaching my students the way I love and was meant to teach them,” she wrote. “I want nothing more than for my son to have a regular second-grade school year. Unfortunately, I do not think that it will be safe to have our students in school until there is a vaccine or a proven cure for COVID-19. It is just too dangerous and deadly right now.”
She added that now is the time to make virtual teaching plans more robust and engaging, so students can learn even more than they did in the spring.
Kevin Dougherty, a father of two elementary school students, disagreed. He says it’s safe for young kids to return to the classroom, as they “do not exhibit the most severe symptoms of this virus.”
He also argued against remote learning, saying it’s not a viable substitute for in-person instruction and doesn’t promote socialization.
“There is consensus that remote learning for elementary-aged students is not effective. It pales in comparison to face-to-face comparison,” Dougherty said. “We must also consider the negative social, mental health impacts to elementary-aged students who stay at home. Many of these students do not have the same social media networks, or technology available to them, to engage in the type of digital socialization that we have as adults. They feel isolated and alone. I’ve seen it in my own two children.”
Like Dougherty, Anil Chaudhry thinks students should go back to school in August. The former at-large school board candidate outlined three reasons why.
For one, he says online coursework does not replace in-person learning.
The father-of-three also says online education “prevents the timely recognition and resolution of cases where children are being physically, mentally, psychologically, or emotionally abused at home by parents and caregivers or suffering from chronic neglect at home.”
His third reason: in-person education is critical to ensuring that the school district has a future tax base for education.
“As most of us are aware, the national pandemic response — for better or worse — has turned into a political issue that is now dividing us as a country. The federal government does not seem to have any more appetite for additional pandemic related funding,” he wrote. “Tax revenues from the state and county will be drastically lower in the next two years.”
“Therefore, for the reasons mentioned above,” he later wrote, “it is essential that public schools in Montgomery County open NOW for in-person education using appropriate, adequate, and reasonable risk mitigation strategies that allow ALL students who NEED in-person education to receive in-person education.”
Orchid Dargahi, a Spanish teacher at Silver Spring’s Sligo Middle School, wants the complete opposite. She says MCPS should keep classes online and reinvent the way students learn.
Instead of a typical school schedule, Dargahi suggests that MCPS have classes in the morning, afternoon, and evening.
“What if a high school student who works mornings as an essential employee can still come home and log on for an evening class?” Dargahi asked. “What if students and families do not have to choose between learning online that day or earning a paycheck? What if a parent who needs uninterrupted time to work from home in the afternoon can still support their child because an evening class affords them that opportunity?”
She also urged board members to reimagine what effective education could look like.
“I can tell you right now, that it does not look like 12 students on a bus, staggered arrival times, alternating weeks at schools, temperature checks, masks, or social distancing inside of a building,” Dargahi said. “Commit to a distance learning plan and what that entails for teachers, including teacher trainings and staff development relevant to an online learning model.”
This article originally appeared on the Rockville Patch