As of this morning, over 13,000 Montgomery County residents have signed a petition to the Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) School Board pleading to return to virtual learning. Citing grave concerns for the safety of students, teachers, and the families they live with, the signers begrudge the recent decision to do away with the threshold rule which closes down individual schools once 5% or more of the student body has been affected. Runaway increases in COVID cases combined with schools that “do not mandate any social distancing and allow masks to be taken off” has vulnerable families scared for their lives.
So why keep students in schools? Well, proponents say, we now know what happens when schools close and learning moves to virtual venues: for starters, grades plummet and participation shrinks, particularly among the most vulnerable populations; test scores have shown striking downturns in core skills such as math and reading. Childcare for homes where guardians are employed full-time becomes a nightmare. Older children who often are forced to take care of their younger siblings have little or no control over their study environment. But the last year has revealed maybe the most damaging consequence: severe mental and emotional side effects for students and families coping with isolation, dysfunctional families, lack of technology, and the sheer trauma of abrupt and chronic lifestyle change. When unaddressed, these problems can and have become lethal just like COVID, resulting in suicide and domestic violence.
MCPS is truly between a rock and a hard place: if they don’t close schools now, the escalation of COVID cases could cause a pandemic meltdown, sending students and staff home by the hundreds and closing the schools anyway but in the worst way. Close them, and it could easily begin another months-long virtual education program (don’t believe the “just for two weeks” clauses!), sabotaging once more sports, extra-curriculars, special education programs, any learning at all for certain demographics, and that haunting plunge once again into dangerous anxiety and depression for thousands of families.
Before pointing fingers, let’s all agree that the real culprit in this quagmire is none other than the COVID virus itself: nimble, cunning, elusive, adaptable, and lethal. No one – but no one! – had a game plan for this. How could they have?
In fact, why point fingers at all? Why not be constructive. Here’s how:
- Remember that omicron spreads much faster. Which means it will die out much faster. We already know that the virus comes in waves so this won’t be forever. But this wave will likely be even quicker – the month of January, maybe – before the curves will point downward and we can begin to climb our way out of this mess. The end of the tunnel is not that far off.
- Make your voice heard. Speak your mind. But do so in ways that will actually get things done. The virtual town hall meeting hosted Councilmember Tom Hucker yesterday which attracted over 3,000 or the above-mentioned petition was constructive. So are dialogues with school administrators and local PTAs. I have experience with MCPS and the community voice really is heard – not always well or promptly or consistently – but it is heard.
- Pray for MCPS. Pray for Dr. Monifa McKnight, our interim Superintendent, the members of the Board of Education, for the principals, for the staff, for students, and for their families. One of the most common uses of prayer is when one can’t see the way through, has no human solution to the conundrum at hand, and calls upon a Higher Power to intervene. I think this might be just such a time.