Thousands ‘Attend’ Sunday’s Virtual Town Hall on Schools

Three thousand people attended Councilmember Tom Hucker’s virtual town hall on the state of Montgomery County Public Schools Sunday afternoon and hundreds more watched on Facebook.

Thirty-six students, parents, and staff members spoke during the two-hour meeting.

Although many other public officials were present, only Hucker and School Board Member Lynn Harris spoke. Neither specifically addressed any of the comments or answered any questions. Hucker said he would forward the meeting’s video and questions to all MCPS Board of Education members and County Executive Marc Elrich’s staff.

A few speakers urged MCPS to keep the schools open, but the vast majority of those who spoke called for at least a two-week break in which all schools would go virtual.

One participant, who identified herself as Jennifer, called for a two-week break from in-person learning. Her child had no bus transportation, and when at school, the student spent time with combined classes watching a movie. Jennifer said her child’s French class was taught by the PE teacher. After all that, her child waited in a packed gym at the end of school to be picked up since her bus route still wasn’t operating.

Speakers complained about the mixed messages they were receiving from the School Board and Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight. They said they no longer understood what the criteria are to keep students and staff safe. They also pointed to a lack of sufficient staffing that has greatly limited the amount of teaching and learning happening inside the school buildings.

“I know so many people who have been exposed. Right now, I am just so scared,” said Walt Whitman High School senior Zoe Cantor. “Lunch is a COVID frenzy,” she stated, as no one wears a mask when they eat and it has been too cold to eat outside. She urged MCPS to go virtual.

Richard Montgomery High School freshman Elaini added, “As a student, I fear for my health and safety.”

Laura Stewart, a member of the Montgomery County PTA and a parent of a junior at Einstein High School, said  due to absenteeism, many classes are being combined with minimal adult supervision.

Many parents spoke out about having immune compromised family membe. They would prefer their student stay home to learn. One parent called it unfair that her daughter is being marked absent when the family is too scared to send her to school.

An MCPS music teacher suggested more teachers would be available if schools went virtual. Several teachers are home quarantining but feel well enough to work, she said. “I am not too sick to teach. I just am too contagious.”

Another music teacher said that one-third to one-half of her students in her middle school were absent this week.

Kathryn, a Takoma Park Middle School teacher, said  besides her normal teaching duties, she spent lunch in the classroom with students too scared to go into the cafeteria. She spent other periods helping out in unsupervised classrooms. On one day, her middle school had 14 teachers out with only one substitute available.

“Last week was not okay,” she said.

A second grade teacher said one day last week, one-third of her students were absent “either due to illness or fear.” However, she added, they were not entitled to virtual learning if they didn’t provide a positive test.

But Nicole stressed the importance of keeping students in school, noting that she is using the vacation time she receives from her work to substitute teach. “In school is the safest place,” she said. Community spread is far worse than the spread inside school, she said during the town hall. Also, she noted, “If kids can’t go to school, parents can’t go to work.”

Currently, 11 of the district’s 209 schools have reverted to virtual, although the vast majority surpassed the 5% or more cases of COVID-19 among staff and students. Originally MCPS said it would evaluate any school that exceeded that 5% to decide whether it should switch to virtual learning. But MCPS has since rescinded that statement and standard.

BOE member Harris told those who spoke that she believed schools could remain open with a good mitigation strategy. However, she did not give any details. Her biggest concern is staffing, she  said.

Hucker closed the meeting, which was extended by 30 minutes to hear from more speakers, by noting, “I really am really overwhelmed. This is really a crisis moment.”

Only first names were used in this article for most speakers as that was all that was provided during the virtual meeting. 

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