Written by CAPA JRC Reporter Rachel Wang
Following the surge in COVID cases in early January, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) established a number of new safety procedures for learning.
The return from winter break saw a sharp spike in COVID cases. Recently, however, new case rates seem to be dropping, averaging about a 0.47 percent increase per week in contrast to a 3.87 percent spike at the beginning of January.
Over the past month, MCPS has made efforts to reduce health risks while preserving a constructive in-person learning environment. Schools have supplied materials for student COVID prevention and detection, including biweekly KN95 mask distributions and COVID rapid tests.
However, some students have concerns regarding distribution after supply shortages at a number of schools. Students were initially given one mask every week at the beginning of January. “I think that handing out KN-95 masks and COVID testing kits is a great idea, but I’m concerned about students wearing the same mask for 5 days a week. I’m not certain how sustainable that is, but it’s better than what we had two weeks ago,” Avery Wang, junior at Richard Montgomery High School, said.
The county has also shifted learning policies to account for quarantined students. MCPS recently required teachers to stream their classes on Zoom. This way, students at home have the option to follow classroom activities in virtual synchronous lessons. “I appreciate that MCPS provides an online option for quarantined students,” Aileen Qi, junior at Montgomery Blair High School, said. However, the virtual learning option has its drawbacks. “The audio and quality of the [Zoom] camera glitch from time to time, making it harder for students in quarantine to understand what’s going on in class,” Sophia Shiu, junior at Thomas Wootton High School, said. The Board of Education is additionally currently considering the option of quarantine instruction for students who are not in quarantine but have concerns about attending school due to the pandemic.
Students participating in extracurricular activities have also experienced limitations in club activities. Currently, spectators for athletic events and extracurricular activities are restricted to 25 percent capacity, while after-school activities are not permitted. Many field trips and club events, such as DECA and FBLA conferences, have been postponed, canceled, or shifted to a virtual format. “Many competitions that my clubs are involved in have been moved to a virtual format. I’m glad they are still happening, but participating online is just so different from the in-person experience where everyone could network and socialize with their peers at other schools,” Qi said.
While the county has taken measures to uphold the quality of learning amidst the recent COVID surge, many students believe that more action is needed. Some students call for a stronger imposition of mask mandates. “Schools aren’t really enforcing the mask mandate. Many kids still wear their masks under their noses or eat in class, and some teachers take off their masks to snack during class,” Shiu said. Other students advocate for increased supply distributions. “The KN95 mask distributions and rapid tests started making people take COVID more seriously and make the process of going to school more comfortable,” Hrishita Mareddy, junior at Richard Montgomery High School, said.
Overall, while many acknowledge MCPS’s increased efforts toward COVID prevention, students agree that more measures can be taken to ensure student physical and mental wellbeing. “I recognize that even though I may be okay in school and feel comfortable in school right now, others may not. That’s where the county needs to step in,” Wang said.
synchronous Zoom classes for quarantining students and new metrics to evaluate school closures.
KN95 mask distribution -- besides a few shortages, everything has leveled out now
Following winter break, schools across the county saw an increase in busing and staffing shortages. [insert stats]
The current quarantine period for students exposed to COVID is [number] days.
What are your thoughts on MCPS's new safety procedures for learning during COVID?
Do you have any thoughts specifically about the synchronous Zoom learning, new metrics to evaluate potential school closure, and/or recent busing and staffing shortages?
Avery’s interview Transcript:
“I think that handing out KN-95 masks and COVID testing kits is a great idea, but I’m concerned about students wearing the same mask for 5 days a week. I’m not certain how sustainable that is and they should be giving out more masks. But it’s better than what we had two weeks ago. I definitely think they should be giving out more, but some kind of policy for providing masks and test kits is better than nothing, even if it’s not enough.”
“I’m not counting on the county anymore to keep me safe -- I’m just doing the best I can to keep myself safe in wearing the best mask possible and trying to keep myself healthy, which is very selfish and I understand that other students can’t do the same thing. I recognize that even though I may be okay in school and feel comfortable in school right now, that other people do not and that’s where the county needs to step in.”
The decision to pause in-person instruction involves the examination of a number of key factors; these key factors are taken into consideration with each individual school’s unique characteristics that range from specific programs to operational readiness. Individual school communities will receive a letter announcing the change and some of the specifics that helped inform the decision for that individual school.
The key factors used in this decision include:
Student attendance rate (three-day average)
Staff absences (three-day average)
Number of bus routes unable to provide service in both morning and afternoon (three-day average)
Unfilled substitute requests (three-day average)
COVID-19 cases among students and staff in the past 10 days
Feedback from a multistakeholder group from the school community
To prepare for this change in operations, teachers will have one day of preparation where students will participate in remote asynchronous learning. Full virtual, teacher-led instruction will then take place. Families will receive information, guidance and resources for what to expect in virtual learning. Childcare programs may continue as scheduled.
This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 25 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.