Hana O’Looney, student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education, hosted an Instagram Live conversation with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) officials on Wednesday.
O’Looney posed a virtual attendee’s question which asked if school officials have seen an online petition calling on MCPS to revert to virtual learning, which has reached nearly 18,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon.
“Just alone that our students felt that they needed to sign a petition to say ‘Hey, there is something that we are concerned about,’ signals to us that it’s really important to you,” Interim Superintendent Dr. Monifa McKnight said. She said it is just as important for officials to communicate with residents so they understand the decision-making process.
“Yes, we have seen that petition. We definitely always appreciate student advocacy, and I know that it’s not just students who have signed the petition but also other community members,” said MCPS Chief of Staff Jimmy D’Andrea. He said officials take that feedback into consideration and digest that information.
During a virtual community conversation ahead of the Instagram Live discussion, McKnight noted virtual learning had consequences on some students, like early learners and students who are impacted by free and reduced-price meals. She shared that MCPS is monitoring staff absences, unfilled substitute requests and unserved bus routes to determine if a “very short-term” transition to virtual learning in an individual school would be necessary. The school system will also monitor COVID-19 case rates among students and staff over a 10-day period. During that Zoom webinar, more than 2,800 public questions and comments flooded the Q&A chat box. Many expressed frustration that officials still were not properly addressing community concerns and were not allowing the public to speak and pose questions. Many called for the school system to revert to temporary virtual learning and others urged a hybrid learning option.
O’Looney said she is interested in offering a virtual option for students who feel unsafe coming into school due to COVID-19.
“Providing students who don’t feel comfortable attending school some sort of virtual option to be able to still participate in education, I think that’s really important,” O’Looney said. McKnight said she understands every household is different and that some share homes with immunocompromised family members. MCPS is working through some options for students and McKnight told viewers to stay tuned for future information.
McKnight said the pandemic situation in March 2020 was much different than today, which is why the approach to maintaining in-person learning is also different. There were no vaccines and officials really did not know the scope of the problem.
“Now that we are living in a new normal, when we know more, we are better informed, we have a vaccine, then we have to adjust our processes,” she said.
Last week, MCPS announced it would drop the threshold the school system started using to trigger consideration for moving an individual school to virtual learning. Before the reversal, if at least 5% of unrelated students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 within a 14-day period, with a minimum of 10 people, then county Health and Human Services and MCPS collaborated to determine if that particular school should temporarily revert to virtual learning. As a result, 11 schools transitioned to virtual learning.