Board Of Education Votes To Delay Return To School Until March 15

By: Christina Liu

          On Jan. 12, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted to move the starting date of phasing in in-person learning from Feb. 1 to Mar. 15, voting seven to one. The board member who voted against the delay, Rebecca Smondrowski, expressed her concern with the lack of information regarding the rollout of the delayed reopening.
          This change comes in order to meet the metrics needed for return. While the current case rate using a seven-day average per 100 thousand residents in Montgomery County is 33.8, the Board’s goal is to reach a new case rate of 15 before being able to return to school. The positivity rate must also be less than five percent.
          In the event of a reopening, social distancing and masks would be required, and the number of students would be limited by building capacity to ensure safety. Regular bell times would also be used for both virtual and in-person settings, with school beginning at 7:45 A.M. and ending at 2:30 P.M. for high schools.
          Although senior Owen Matus wants to return to in-person instruction, he does not want to return as long as the current case rate and positivity rate is higher than the Board’s goal. “I’d like to go back to school to say goodbye to my friends before senior year ends, but I know it’s not safe to open schools right now,” Matus said. “It makes sense that they pushed the date back, but I hope they won’t have to keep delaying the phase-in period.”
          Governor Larry Hogan on Jan. 21 issued his own announcement regarding the reopening of schools, pressuring districts to bring students back for in-person instruction by Mar. 1, or face legal action. 

          Hogan’s announcement directly affects MCPS’ decision to remain fully virtual, and he has suggested that if schools do not reopen by the Mar. 1 deadline, he will begin to explore every legal avenue at his disposal.
          Junior Alanna Li disagrees with Hogan’s push to return to schools sooner and thinks returning before the pandemic is over will make current education inequalities worse. “I think it’s hypocritical for Hogan to advocate for students to go back to schools on the basis of their ‘well-being’ and ‘development’ when he’s actively worked against education reform by vetoing the Kirwan plan. While quarantine learning has exacerbated educational inequities, sending children back to school while the pandemic is still
happening is a clear threat to education and will only make matters worse,” Li said. “COVID-19 hits low-income communities the hardest, and sending children back to school only makes the pre-existing inequities in schools a life or death matter.”
          The Board of Education will meet in February to review COVID-19 metrics once again, and a final decision regarding the Mar. 15 reopening plans will be made by Feb. 23. If schools do begin to reopen on Mar. 15, students would have around three months of in-person classes before the end of the academic year, June 16.

College Board Makes Changes To SAT

By: Amanda Slud, Grade 11

          As students and colleges are adjusting to the new normal, so is the College Board, who has recently announced changes to the SAT. There will no longer be SAT subject tests or the SAT with the optional essay. 

          The SAT subject tests have been discontinued in the United States. They will be discontinued internationally after June 2021. The SAT essay will also be discontinued after June 2021.

          The College board is discontinuing the SAT subject tests in reaction to lower student demand. Students get a chance to show their subject area knowledge through AP testing. With the large number of AP classes that are available and that students take, they already have the chance to show what they know.

          Junior Ellie Metz has concerns with the subject test changes. “I am mostly relieved of these changes, but I also feel that there might be more pressure on the AP tests now that there are no subject tests,” Metz said.

          The optional essay portion is going away in order to further adapt to the new reality with students and colleges. The optional essay portion has been an opportunity for students to put their writing skills to the test where they were asked to analyze a text and show how they understood a passage. In an article written by College Board, they said “This change simply streamlines the process for students who have other, more relevant opportunities to show they can write an essay as part of the work they're already doing on their path to college.” 

          Junior Katelyn Cheng has been studying for the SAT and has mixed feelings about the changes. “I didn't really care much about the subjects, but as for the essays, I feel relieved that the College Board is taking it away. I'm not much of an essay writer so it's a win-win for me, however I do think this could increase more competition with other students since there will be no more essays,” Cheng said. 

          An article from Inside Higher ED points out the involvement of the pandemic. “The pandemic-- and the pervasive adoption of temporary test-optional or test-blind policies--gave them permission to eliminate the requirement. And I believe a large number of institutions will not return to requiring it,” the article said.

          Since the start of the pandemic there have been changes in the college process. A number of colleges became test optional or test blind. The College Board, much like the rest of the world, is adjusting their ways and trying to establish a new normal. 

The Process Of Picking MCPS' New Superintendent, Explained

By: Nico DePalma, Grade 11

           Superintendent Jack R. Smith announced his tentative retirement date in a community update email Jan. 14, surprising both county residents and the Board of Education itself.

          Smith plans to retire June 1, closing out his renewed term as superintendent earlier than anticipated. The Board agreed to renew Smith’s contract as superintendent for an additional four years after his initial term, which started in July of 2016, came to a close. But now, Smith has decided to cut that second term short.

          Superintendent Jack R. Smith announced his tentative retirement date in a community update email Jan. 14, surprising both county residents and the Board of Education itself.

          Smith’s reason for doing so is to move closer to his wife, Gayle, and his grandson in Maine. The two-year-old recently went through open-heart surgery to reconstruct a malformed heart, leading to family circumstances and distances apart that were only exacerbated by the pandemic.

          After he received information that his wife would be going through a different surgery herself, Smith decided to part ways with MCPS. “Given [my grandson’s] health needs, our family’s circumstances are not going to change for at least the next few years. I need to join Gayle in Maine as I find I can no longer tolerate living most of the time separately,” Smith said.

          Smith’s imminent absence raises the question: How will we pick a new superintendent? The process is complex, but there are three general steps taken to appoint a new superintendent.

          First, the Board must submit a request for proposal (RFP) to hire a search firm. Once the Board finds and hires a search firm, they must create a search process. This includes deciding exactly what the job announcement should say, and determining what kinds of expectations the Board has for a candidate. This is also when the Board may seek community recommendations to gather what parents and students would like to see in a superintendent.

          The search for a replacement is country-wide and is extremely thorough. Not only must able candidates be found, but extensive background checks must be performed. Finally, once a candidate is found, their appointment must be announced between February and May, and they must be approved by the state superintendent of schools.

          However, there is a roadblock to this process. The Code of Maryland (COMAR) states that if a superintendent is not selected and announced by the beginning of the next fiscal year (July 1 -June 30), the Board must appoint an interim superintendent to serve for the entirety of that year. “A new superintendent can’t assume the role in the middle of the fiscal year,” Board member Lynne Harris said.

          It is likely that the Board will appoint an interim superintendent while the search for a permanent one is carried out, similar to the case of Mr. Larry A. Bowers, the interim superintendent before Smith.
          In 2015, the Board swiftly appointed Bowers after the previous superintendent, Joshua Starr, cut his term short in February of that year. Starr’s decision came in the third year of his term after the Board decided not to renew his contract.

          The Board initiated a search in mid-March to find a replacement for Starr by June 30. “It was an epic fail,” Harris said. “They had to just admit utter defeat, and then they appointed Larry Bowers as interim for the entire 2015-16 school year. It worked out relatively well because he knew the system inside and out.”
          Given what happened in 2015, it is likely too late for the Board to initiate a thorough search for a new superintendent. For now, the Board is “just beginning to start to think about it,” Harris said.

Graduation Plans For Seniors

By: Noah Lenkin, Grade 12

          Covid-19 leaves seniors, planning committee, all involved, confused about graduation.
          Graduation is one of the most time-honored rituals in high school. It is something every high school student looks forward to and a memorable event for all. It is the time when four years of high school end, and the next part of your life begins. It is also the last school event where a senior class is together.
          In years past, seniors attended a ceremony at DAR Constitution Hall. The event was ushered by Patriot Ambassadors, and also included a guest speaker like Class of 2012 alumni Haley Skarupa. Festivities have also included a speech given by the principal, as well as the class president. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered graduation planning.
          Last year, there was a virtual graduation to commemorate the Class of 2020 after the pandemic canceled any in-person festivities. This year, there are a few options for the graduation ceremonies regarding the Class of 2021. Plan A is to have a regular graduation at DAR, UMBC, St Mary’s or our building with full or limited attendance based on health metrics. The deadline to push ahead with Plan A is April 15.
          Plan B consists of two options. Option one of Part B would have all schools graduate from their outdoor stadiums. Option two of Part B would have schools use Gaithersburg High School as a graduation site if their stadium is unable to accommodate a graduation. The deadline to move ahead with Plan B is April 30.
          There is also Plan C, a virtual graduation, possibly resembling the one last year. This year’s graduation will still have caps, gowns, and tassels for the seniors. Schools are supposed to be preparing for this plan throughout the semester. Currently, there is a tentative graduation date of Thursday June 3, at 2:30 p.m. The above information was released in a email to parents and students a few days ago.

          Many different people are involved in planning graduation. One part of the team for planning graduation is senior administrator Jane Cocker. “I am part of a team that includes Ms. Rice, who is our graduation coordinator, as well as Ms. Roberts and Mr. Schwartz, who are the class sponsors,” Cocker said.
          When considering what graduation looks like, the health metrics are important as well. “MCPS follows CDC protocols and will provide guidance on this as we move forward,” Cocker said. Graduation always leaves us with sentimental feelings. “This class will always be special to me as we have been together since freshman year. Watching everyone grow and develop into young adults, being with you through all the good times and bad, sharing our hopes and dreams together has been one of the greatest privileges of my teaching career,” Cocker said.
          Another part of planning graduation involves Senior Planning. “Senior Planning typically works with our graduation coordinator, Mrs. Rice, and Ms. Boldon and administration to help solidify the logistics of graduation every year,” co-class sponsor Keith Schwartz said.

          Schwartz has sentimental feelings about the day as well. “I’m excited to be involved this year after working so closely with the Class of 2021 for the past four years. I’m excited for all of them to reach this milestone and look forward to helping make it a day for them to remember,” Schwartz said.

MCPS Approves Phase-In For Students In March

By: Helena Hong, Grade 12

          March 13, 2020, was the last day of in-person school due to the pandemic. After 10 months of virtual learning, Montgomery County Public School’s Board of Education announced on Feb. 9 that in-school learning will be starting on March 1. Small groups of students will be phasing in to ensure the safety of staff and students.
          On March 1, students in specific programs, such as Autism K-12 programs, special schools and
extensions programs, will be allowed to attend in-person. On March 15, group 1.1- discrete programs and special populations, Career and Technology Education (CTE) programs, Multidisciplinary Education (METS), Career Readiness Education Academy (CREA), alternative programs and grades K-3- will begin their phase-in. Group 1.2- discrete programs and special populations, additional CTE programs, grades 4-5, grade 6 and grade 12- will phase-in no later than April 6. Group 2.1, which includes grades 8, 9 and 11, will phase-in no later than April 19. Finally, group 2.2, which includes grade 7 and 10, will phase-in no later than April 26. Specific days for groups 1.2, 2.1 and 2.2 have not yet been decided.
          Junior year is a stressful time, with studying for standardized tests, beginning college applications and asking for teacher recommendations. Due to this pandemic, the school year and setting has been untraditional for juniors and although it would seem important for juniors to phase-in first, they are in group 2.1 and are going back no later than April 19. Nevertheless, juniors understand why seniors are phasing-in before them. “The fact that seniors are going back to school first doesn’t bother me at all and I think that it’s very explanatory. They deserve to go back first. I still feel a little weary about going back to school because there's always a risk of something going wrong, but I think that if students go back little at a time or if there’s a block schedule it would be much safer,” junior Maya Chelar said.

          Sophomores are last to phase-in. Even though they have had less than a full school year in-person in high school, students are not bothered by this and are more worried about the upcoming AP’s. “I’m honestly not so worried about going back to school besides the workload increasing and that the time we would be going back to school is just in time for the AP tests. The only difference I see is that other classes would have more opportunities to prepare for the AP tests in-school as opposed to my own,” sophomore Max Choi said.
          With the Board of Education’s announcement, students have the option to either stay virtual or attend school in-person. The school day schedule will remain the same with the first period starting at 9 a.m. and the last period ending at 2:40 p.m. In addition, students will only attend school four days a week and Wednesday will remain an asynchronous day. To ensure safety, students will be separated into two groups: group A and group B. Principal Boldon has separated the groups by last name: A-K and L-Z. Each group will alternate between attending in-person school and virtual school every other week. For example, while group A is attending in-person, group B will be virtual and the following week, group B will be in-person while group A is virtual.

          Students who ride buses will be arriving at school at 7:45 a.m. to accommodate transportation to elementary, middle and high schools. Between 7:45 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., students may engage in a support period. During this time students can meet with teachers and work on assignments. Students who have their own mode of transportation may arrive at school before the start of the first period.
          Freshmen are the second grade to go back to high school, despite the fact that they do not know the building at all yet. Students are filled with different emotions and decisions to make. “It’s pretty exciting, but scary knowing that we’re going back to school with Covid. I trust MCPS enough to be responsible for the students who do go in-person. I don’t know if I’m going back yet, but I am considering it, if it is safe then. I don’t know my way around the school and I don’t want to go to school as a sophomore, not knowing where rooms are. It’d be awkward since I wouldn’t be a freshman at that point. I just want to be familiar with the high school environment so I don’t mind the seniors going before us,” freshman Amy Qin said.

Disappointment Strikes As County Coronavirus Vaccines Roll Out Slowly

 

By: Maya Seiler, Grade 11

          After a year since the pandemic began rampaging the nation and half a million lives have perished because of it, the race against the clock to beat the new U.K. and South Africa variants are put to the test against vaccine distribution. 

          President Joe Biden formally announced on Jan. 25 his goal to hit 150 million doses given within his first 100 days in office, which he retracted a day later to restate his goal of 100 million in these first 100 days. This means he will have until April 26 to distribute. The president’s chief of staff said that this goal was “ambitious.” Feb. 18 marked his 29th day in office with 39,756,546 shots in arms, which, according to NBC News data editor Joe Murphy, the U.S. isn’t too far behind the average rate necessary to reach his original 150 million dose administration goal. 

          As of Feb. 17, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that Maryland has administered 14,939 doses per 100,000 residents, and approximately 4,196 have received a second dose. Though this may appear to be a staggering number, it only equates to 903,127 doses given out of Maryland’s total residential population of roughly over six million people. However, Maryland remains one of the states with the smallest share of population administered with at least one shot, which is about 12% and about 75% of doses used.

          Montgomery County distribution is currently on phase 1C, which includes adults over 65, health care providers and K-12 education staff. The county has left countless residents angered as there simply aren’t enough vaccines to give; vaccination centers even leave people without shots after waiting for hours in line. Considering the new reopening plan starting on March 1, students and staff have strong feelings about how administration has been handled thus far. 

          Sociology teacher Amy Buckingham said she feels disappointed with how the rollout has been going so far, however, she is “still hopeful that it will improve and supply will increase, and we will be vaccinated before we return to the buildings. But I think there are a lot of challenges to that, that may or may not be able to be overcome,” Buckingham said.

          Senior Thomas Vlahos said that he finds it annoying how slowly distribution is going. “I think if they really do desperately want to put our kids back into school safety and return to a normal life, then there is no reason why our county shouldn’t be speeding up the distribution. We all want to reach herd immunity, which will be the key to a normal life, and if we want to be there sooner than later, then Montgomery County should be speeding up the distribution,” Vlahos said. 

Teachers Protest After Board Votes To Return To schools, Call Plan Unsafe

By: Ellie Cowen, Grade 11

          Around 1,500 teachers protested the Board of Education’s decision to return students to schools, backing up the roads around the MCPS headquarters. The Board voted unanimously to phase students back into schools beginning early March. The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) took a vote of no confidence in the plan on Feb. 15, indicating they do not consider the decision safe and demanding that all school staff be vaccinated before returning.
          The Board has released numerous press releases with information about returning. Schools will follow CDC guidelines, have increased ventilation and social distancing will be strictly enforced. The MCEA said the plan “cannot be implemented with existing resources, does not adequately protect the health and safety of employees and students and diverts resources from Black and Brown children.”
          MCEA has demanded that the Board release more detailed information about safety precautions, as well as “implement a contact tracing and testing program, and provide all employees the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before a return to in-person instruction.”                              Superintendent Jack Smith said he is disappointed with MCEA’s vote in a statement on Twitter.
“Montgomery County Public Schools has developed a comprehensive plan that prioritizes and
safety of students and staff and the continued academic growth of all students,” Smith said.
          The Board’s plan came after pressure from Governor Larry Hogan to return students to school
by Mar. 1. “If school systems do not immediately begin a good-faith effort to return to the classrooms, we will explore every legal avenue at our disposal,” Hogan said.
          The first round of students have already returned to schools, with more students expected to go back in the coming weeks. The Board will vote on Mar. 23 whether to speed up the reopening,
allowing all students to be in schools by Apr. 19. Students will still have a completely virtual option for the rest of the year, but teachers do not have the option to stay home.
          Teachers are disappointed by the apparent lack of communication between the Board and
educators. “There has been some criticism by the union that [the Board] is not taking necessary
safety measures, like making sure all teachers are vaccinated before they return,” English teacher Melissa Kaplan said.
          Teachers have been denied ADA accommodations that would have allowed them to stay at
home, after being led to believe that more teachers would be accommodated. “I've talked to a
handful [of teachers] that are terrified to return and I've talked to some that... feel pretty safe,”
Kaplan said, “I think there is a broad range [of opinions] at Wootton.”

          Certain teachers and administrators have already returned to schools and more will return to the building in the coming weeks. Instruction will remain primarily through Zoom to accommodate
online students.

Board Of Ed Holds Hearings To Determine Fate Of County School Resource Officer Program

By: Nicolas DePalma, Grade 11

          The Board of Education held two virtual hearings on Mar. 2 and 4 to hear testimony from students, teachers, and county residents about the continuation of MCPS’s current school resource officer (SRO) program.

          This topic has been debated throughout the county following the resurgence of the Black Lives
Matter movement after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and more Black citizens
were killed by police officers last summer. Increased publicity of police violence and systemic
racism have raised the question of whether police presence in schools is an equitable policy.

          Council members Will Jawando and Hans Reimer introduced Bill 46-20 to the County Council
back in November to contest the county’s SRO program and advocate for its termination. Since
then, it has seen widespread support among students and even teachers, but also pushback from
other council members and even the National Association of School Resource Officers. Council
members Craig Rice and Sidney Katz introduced counter-bill 7-21, which would reinforce the roles of SROs and require more training.

          Both bills seek to address the idea that SROs disproportionately affect minority students in a
negative way, be that through arrests or by inducing psychological distress. The County’s own
Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) said that, upon review, the SRO program “manifested racially disparate juvenile arrest and school discipline rates suggesting the differential treatment of students by race and ethnicity.”

          The OLO found that schools with SROs tend to see higher crime rates, but that there is no data
quantifying a reduction of crime in schools nor an increase in safety. “Research considering the
impact of SROs on student safety are incomplete as methodologically strong evaluative studies
considering the hypothesis that SROs makes schools safer are not yet available,” the OLO said.

          Meanwhile, student-led advocacy groups around the county like MoCo4Change and MoCo
STEPS have shared an initiative to gather student and staff support of the removal bill. This
letter to the Board, titled “Statement on SROs by MCPS students,” details the efforts of these
student groups to end the SRO program. “As MCPS students, we commit to trauma-informed,
healing-centered conflict resolution rather than allowing the criminal justice system to devastate
our students and their families,” the letter said.

          Albert Einstein junior and MoCo4Change and MoCo STEPS executive Alex Garcia created the
letter to represent to the Board how much students care about the issue. “It got over 400 [signatures] in the first four days, has students from grades 6-12, and represents all 25 high schools,” Garcia said.

          As the end of the fiscal year approaches, the Board plans to revisit the continuation of the SRO
program in May, and is accepting testimony until Mar. 25.

          However, a recent budget proposal has already eliminated funding for the program altogether. Moreover, the most recent testimonials submitted to the Board have trended in support of SRO removal. “We've already started getting some emails to the Board from people saying MCPS needs to keep the SRO program even with the county executive's budget proposal. But - big picture - I would say the emails coming into the Board inbox, and I believe the SRO testimony received by the board...are overwhelmingly in favor of removal,” Board member Lynne Harris said.

          Regarding the Board’s plans to revisit the issue in May, Harris is interested to see if
conversations around the operating budget cause that to change.