Updated: Sep 8
September 7, 2021
Open Letter to MCPS Acting Superintendent Dr. McKnight
And Members of the Board of Education
Dear Dr. McKnight and Members of the Board of Education (BOE),
Thank you for your ongoing efforts on behalf of MCPS students and staff as we begin another school year with unique challenges. I am the parent of an MCPS kindergartener, a former MCPS teacher, an MCPS graduate, and an at-large candidate for the Montgomery County Council. I write to you today because I am concerned that current conditions fall short of where they need to be to minimize disruption to in-school learning and keep all of our students as safe and healthy as possible.
I appreciated Dr. McKnight’s clear statement at the Aug. 24 BOE meeting that “we are expecting all of our schools to...include use of outdoor spaces for lunch.” My own child’s school changed their Plan A from cafeteria seating to outdoor seating immediately following.
However, expecting is different than requiring, and as the MCCPTA recently noted, “The current vague approach [to outdoor space usage] articulated in the Reopening Guide is likely to lead to inconsistent implementation across the County schools and will exacerbate equity issues.” As classes begin, this is exactly what we are seeing.
There are still schools where children are eating indoors by default. Some students with outdoor lunch are benefiting from new PTA-funded tables in shaded areas, while students at other schools sit on the ground in direct sunlight. Some schools, including my child’s, move everyone into the cafeteria when heat or rain prohibits outdoor lunch -- which will presumably be more common at schools with no cover over their outdoor seating.
Earle B. Wood MS Montgomery Knolls ES Takoma Park ES
It is clear that if schools do not receive guidelines for minimum, mandatory standards for outdoor lunch and weather contingency plans, and critically, the resources and staffing each school needs to meet them, we will continue to see inequitable and uneven results.
Additionally, MCPS’ COVID-19 testing plan currently falls dramatically short of where it could and should be to keep our kids safe and in their classrooms. On Friday morning after four days in school, there were over 1,000 children and staff in quarantine.
I urge you to make the following adjustments:
Establish Mandatory Lunch Guidelines
Establish a mandatory baseline for outdoor lunch that includes acceptable options for seating, tabletop surfaces (communal or individual), and shade. Set guidelines for weather contingency plans. Provide the resources and staffing each school needs.
Shade: Schools have been advised that coverings must be taken down and reconstructed daily. Given the known benefits of outdoor learning, we should be looking for ways to make outdoor spaces more usable permanently, not forcing staff to spend their valuable time setting up tents. Advocates have proposed coverings that attach to existing buildings and can easily be extended or retracted.
Weather contingency plans: Establish standards for weather contingency plans that minimize mixing different classes of students in single rooms while unmasked. Work with principals to find creative solutions and determine staffing and resource needs.
Supplies: Provide schools with a menu of options for seating, eating surfaces, and shade. Allow principals to select what works best for their school. (Funding addressed below.)
Address Lunch Staffing and Bus Driver Shortages
Address the lunch staffing shortage and the bus driver shortage with a single solution. The two new seven-hour staff members promised to elementary and middle schools have yet to arrive, and some principals have noted that would still not be enough. Meanwhile, MCPS is suffering from a severe shortage of bus drivers, who are paid $19.53/hour but only get a few hours of work each day.
Consider offering bus drivers the option to also work as lunch monitors during the day. Work with SEIU Local 500 to ensure program details are desirable and get the word out to drivers. This is a win-win. Also, consider allowing vaccinated volunteers to assist outdoors.
Directly Fund Supplies
Each day that students avoid eating indoors is of value. In this case, the best antidote to an inequitable distribution of supplies is not to discourage PTAs from providing urgently needed resources, but rather to ensure that the BOE is making quality resources easily available to any school that needs them. In the context of a nearly $3 billion MCPS budget, sufficient tables, seating, and covers to protect students from COVID and keep schools open (and to set the scene for future outdoor learning) seems both doable and worthwhile.
MCPS is also expecting $422 million in COVID-19 relief funds, including over $200 million earmarked to replenish budget categories for expenditures like implementing public health protocols, improving facilities to reduce the risk of virus transmission, and hiring new staff.
Make Routine Testing Mandatory For All Students
The CDC agrees that testing is one of the best mitigation tools available to us, yet MCPS is minimizing our use of it. Baltimore City Schools provides free, on-site routine testing to all students in grades K-12 and requires that any students who choose not to use it get tested off-site on the same timetable. MCPS should adopt this model. Currently, we are only routinely testing a small sub-group of K-6 students. Students whose parents don't turn in the opt-in form do not have to get regularly tested.
According to a widely disseminated pre-print modeling simulation study that has not yet completed peer review, nearly 50% of a school’s unvaccinated population will have COVID-19 by November 30 if we continue with universal masking in the absence of testing. However, with masking and weekly testing of at least half the population, this figure drops to 22%. Even for our older students with higher vax rates, the percentage of the population estimated to have COVID by November 30 drops by 10-15% with routine testing.
All students should be required to participate in routine testing whether on-site or off-site, and have free testing available at school.
Minimize Quarantines With In-School Tests For Those Symptomatic Or Exposed
Within the first few days of school, three of the seven kindergarten classes at New Hampshire Estates ES were under quarantine, with many students not present for virtual classes. All were waiting for a symptomatic student to return a negative COVID test. Requiring students to quarantine until a classmate procures a negative test on their own time will cause needless quarantining by entire classrooms of children. It also puts the burden of testing on families that may face barriers like transportation, language, finances, or time, causing longer quarantines in less-resourced schools.
To address this inequity and the associated learning loss and social-emotional consequences, as well as the burden all the back-and-forth places on our already heavily taxed teachers, MCPS should provide in-school, rapid PCR testing to all symptomatic students and staff on an opt-out basis, make rapid antigen or PCR tests available to close contacts, and consider a test-to-stay program.
Hire A Public Health Officer for MCPS
We pride ourselves on believing in science. Yet currently, principals across the county are being asked to make judgement calls about what plans are COVID-safe and what constitutes an acceptable level of risk. Questions and unpredictable new circumstances related to COVID safety will undoubtedly arise throughout the year. MCPS should hire a dedicated public health officer to advise the Superintendent, BOE, and individual principals as needed.
I know we all have the same goals here, and I am grateful for your work and your ongoing attention to this matter. Families across Montgomery County deserve to know that their children are being kept as safe and healthy as possible, regardless of zip code. We are facing unprecedented challenges, and we must respond bravely and with clear purpose. Thank you.
MCPS Parent, Former MCPS Teacher, and Candidate for Montgomery County Council