Montgomery County Public Schools is preparing for the 2021-22 school year, a period when many districts expect students to return to classrooms en masse.
MCPS officials have drafted a health and safety plan that provides guidelines on how the district will operate in the upcoming school year. Certain key operational points, however, remain in flux as some pandemic measures pertaining to schools are controlled by the governor’s office.
“The proposed plan is a solid plan to start,” Montgomery County School Board member Gunin Kiran wrote in an email. “It has not been approved by the board yet … As you know with any plan, the proposed plan is also subject to modifications if, and when, conditions should change. The board will be working with the administration and the local health district closely as we move forward.”
One factor Kiran pointed out: MCPS is still awaiting further guidelines from the Virginia Department of Education, which she said is in turn awaiting word from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several school board members specifically raised the issues of masks and vaccinations during a meeting this past week.
Superintendent Mark Miear said the district, on mask wearing, is following the conditions directed in Gov. Ralph Northam’s most recent executive order. Miear said those measures right now require students and staff to continue wearing masks.
If there are no students in a building, staff can choose to remove their masks if they are fully vaccinated, Miear said. The wrinkle with that measure is the district can’t require an employee to disclose their vaccination status.
“The advice from our attorney is that we cannot ask employees or students if they have been vaccinated. This can change through state regulation,” MCPS spokeswoman Brenda Drake wrote in an email. “The current discussion by the school board is to follow the mitigation guidance provided by [the] governor’s executive orders and the VDOE while reserving the right to increase mitigation measures above what is required by the state in the event that COVID-19 cases in Montgomery County increase significantly.”
The point about the district reserving the right to raise mitigation measures above state requirements is included and highlighted in the proposed 2021-22 health and safety plan.
Other school board members referenced requirements regarding face coverings as an issue that still needs ironing out.
“We don’t have final guidance on mask wearing and other mitigation, so that will need some adjustments,” board member Mark Cherbaka wrote in an email. “I hope that when the final guidance comes out, we can allow at least vaccinated staff and students to forgo mask-wearing, but I understand if that guidance doesn’t allow for it.”
Cherbaka said he’s also still a bit concerned about the younger student population.
“The pandemic is not over for them, and they are still vulnerable,” he said. “We’ll need to carefully consider their unique situation, especially in the fall.”
The first day of school for MCPS is set for Aug. 12, according to the plan. The schools are slated to open on a full-day schedule, for five days a week, but officials plan to keep providing a fully remote option.
The past school year was a tricky affair for the school board, with members over the past year often divided over the degree of reopening the schools. Board members who were more lenient on in-person instruction emphasized concerns over difficulties created by remote learning, while members who pushed for more conservative approaches to reopening raised concerns about the health risks.
MCPS spent most of the past school year in a hybrid model of remote learning and half-day, in-person instruction four times a week. Just before the spring, the district began allowing full-day, in-person classes four times a week. An all-remote option, however, was available all school year.
Although the district is awaiting some further guidance from the state, the upcoming school year’s health and safety plan does call for the continuation of several coronavirus measures and mitigation practices. Among those measures is the maintaining of an online dashboard that provides daily case data to the public.
“MCPS maintains an online COVID dashboard that provides information about the number of positive cases and location through the summer,” a portion of the plan reads. “This dashboard will continue to be maintained throughout the 2021-22 school year. Communications will be created and distributed to stakeholders to increase awareness of the dashboard.”
The school board plans to host a public hearing and vote on the plan on July 13.