Here are the lessons MCPS can learn about getting students back to school

The so-called debate between in-person and virtual classes is a false dichotomy.

I think most MCPS families would prefer to have in-person classes. However, I don’t think families envision in-person classes as being in an auditorium or cafeteria due to teacher and substitute teacher shortages or checking daily to see if there will be a school bus tomorrow.

The heart of the families’ frustration and the frustration of the staff relates to the deep gaps in planning, execution and communication of MCPS during the return from winter vacation.

While it’s understandable that the ever-evolving pandemic makes it difficult to pivot and adapt, other school districts in our region have been relatively successful in having an orderly return to schools after the winter break. MCPS could have taken a page from their playbook.

For example, the District of Columbia public schools ‘comeback test’ passed to catch asymptomatic students and staff before they return to school. It was certainly within MCPS’ ability to do so.

MCPS could also have partnered with county agencies to organize dedicated testing capacity for its staff and students.

I understand that MCPS is committed to in-person learning. However, this “in person at all costs” approach has not served our families well. He ignored the reality on the ground and destroyed staff morale. Worse still, it has shaken public confidence in the system.

More importantly, MCPS and other surrounding districts face a very competitive job market. MCPS can no longer afford to view our teachers, administrators, and staff as a consumable, replaceable workforce.

If the past year is any indication, labor is scarce and will be increasingly so. The chaos of the first weeks of January will not escape the eyes of the talented candidates. Our recruitment and retention efforts have become more difficult.

Where does this lead us? Now that a permanent superintendent has been appointed and spring break is right around the corner, here are a few things MCPS needs to do:

• Organize dedicated opt-out tests for students and staff, instead of so-called opt-in tests.

• Make more of an effort to communicate and quickly clear up confusion about the MCPS “circuit breaker” mechanism and its associated criteria. MCPS should explain its intent and how criteria such as number of student absences or number of employee absences were taken into account.

• Given the varying circumstances of MCPS families, expand the Virtual Academy and provide greater enrollment flexibility.

At the same time, MCPS will have to deal with the expiration of the Emergency Relief for Primary and Secondary Schools (ESSER) Funds.

The ESSER Fund is created within the framework of the Education Stabilization Fund in the CARES Act. State educational agencies (e.g., Maryland State Department of Education) will award subgrants to local educational agencies (e.g., Montgomery County School Board) to address the impact of COVID-19 on elementary and secondary schools.

MCPS should conduct a review and determine which positions or materials are being paid for with the ESSER Fund, their effectiveness, and, if necessary, their associated sustainment plans.

Additionally, during the pandemic, MCPS has purchased and implemented a variety of technologies, such as ParentVUE Synergy and Canvas/myMCPS Classroom.

One thing that MCPS should not overlook is the privacy of student data. What are the terms of use between MCPS and these providers?

If MCPS were to retain these technologies for future use, it must have a clear understanding of how student data is used and stored by these vendors and formulate a consistent data privacy policy.

There’s still time for MCPS to learn its lessons and avoid a repeat of January’s chaos. Having backup plans in place provides the highest level of flexibility when a system the size of MCPS needs to power up in no time.

A safe, sustainable and effective plan would go a long way to regaining the trust of the community and the staff. We may well have a smaller wave of COVID-19 after spring break, but as the saying goes, we have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Clarksburg’s Jay Guan is running for District 1 seat on the Montgomery County School Board. He was a candidate for a seat on the board of directors in 2020. His child is currently attending MCPS.

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