Getting Back to School – A Safe, Pragmatic Approach – Let’s Start from YES

Updated: a day ago

It’s been more than 6 months since MCPS, and most other school systems in the country, were forced to do a quick pivot to distance learning because of the COVID pandemic. In July it was clear that MCPS was strongly leaning toward fully virtual instruction for the first semester of the 2020-21 school year, and in early August the Board of Education approved that decision. In late August the Maryland State Department of Education ordered MCPS (and the other Maryland school districts planning on a virtual first semester) to reconsider that decision. On Friday September 25 MCPS and the associations officially issued the required 45-day notice to begin planning for a return to in-person instruction. To be clear, the 45-day notice does NOT mean in-person instruction will resume in 45-days. It is a contractual obligation between MCPS and the associations, required to reopen impact bargaining and do more in-depth collaborative planning for the eventual return to school buildings.

As a nurse and public health person, I fully support evidence-based decision-making and applaud MCPS’ commitment to move forward hand-in-hand with our County Health Officer Dr. Gayles, to make sure our school year plans fully embrace necessary public health infection control and safety measures. I’m also very aware of the American Academy of Pediatricians’ call for returning to in-person instruction at the earliest opportunity, to try to stem the learning loss that we know will result from prolonged virtual instruction, especially for our youngest learners, and our students with special learning needs. .

In-person instruction is also essential for many Career/Technology Education courses – training students for high-demand careers, and preparing them to obtain industry level licensure and certification. That aspect of many CTE courses can’t be achieved without hands-on training and, for my course, clinical internships in healthcare facilities.

As a parent, MCPS teacher, and long-time MoCo education advocate – I truly believe that MCPS needs to move forward from a place of YES - how do we safely bring cohorts of students back to our buildings for some in-person instruction – and work collaboratively and pragmatically to create a plan to do that. That is the student-first, student-focused approach. Many school systems across the world are plowing the road for live-instruction during the time of COVID - MCPS needs to embrace what those school systems have to teach us about what works and what doesn't, and how to make it happen. Unfortunately, much of our planning for the 2020-21 school year since the Spring started from a defensive crouch, and there has been a lack of willingness among some of our associations to work with MCPS to create safe plans for in-person instruction. That culture of ‘no’ is not in the best interests of students and families.

To be clear, no one in a high-risk group should be required to participate in in-person instruction, and any plans for in-person instruction MUST fully embrace public health practices to keep students and staff safe. Limited numbers, cohorting, regular health screening, social distancing, required face masks, incorporating ongoing cleaning of high-touch surfaces into routine classroom practices, enhanced classroom cleaning, regular handwashing breaks, frequent use of hand sanitizer – it’s all possible and common sense.

As part of a 3-person team working over the summer to review the Medical Science with Clinical Applications curriculum, I wrote a plan to bring our students in to our Medical Science Skills labs during the first semester for four sessions of in-person skills training, practice, and coaching. That plan is here. Though it is specific to the needs of the Academy of Health Professions program, it is fully adaptable for any purpose for which we would bring students into our school buildings for live instruction – it’s all about the art of the POSSIBLE and starting from a perspective that we WILL create a safe plan - instead of starting from a defensive place of “no”. Now that MCPS has announced that intentional planning for the return to some level of in-person instruction will begin, I hope that MCPS will acknowledge that some of the experts in its midst – specifically the medical/public health professionals who teach in our Academy of Health Professions – have already done some of the necessary work. MCPS and the associations don’t have to reinvent the wheel – a safe, CDC (and more) compliant plan for bringing students back is already available.

As MCPS and the associations officially begin the process of planning for a return for school, MCPS must take a far more intentional look at plans to bring some groups of students into our schools NOW. Special education students, specialized arts programs, CTE programs, ESOL students – those can’t wait. Learning loss is real, some of our courses require access to MCPS facilities and resources to be equitably delivered, CTE opportunities are trickling away. Resuming some in-person instruction for our students and programs that most need it must be a priority. That planning must include pragmatic support for the teachers and staff that will be providing in-person instruction and support.

Many teachers and staff are simultaneously supervising their own children’s distance-learning as they also teach and support students. If a teacher or staff member periodically provides in-school live instruction and/or academic supports, MCPS needs to provide spaces in those schools for the children of those teachers and staff, so the children can participate in their own online learning in a safe, supervised space. Again, we have to start from a place of ‘how can we make this WORK for staff and students’.

MCPS is currently allowing several for-profit companies to operate ‘learning pods’ in many of our schools, cohorting students in groups of 13 from 8a-5p. If MCPS can allow students into schools for that purpose, we can create a safe and manageable plan to provide in-person learning opportunities for students and programs that need it, and the teachers and staff that will deliver it, NOW.

The decision about what’s safe for students, staff and communities is one that must be left to each of Maryland’s 24 school systems – because the local impacts of COVID are not the same across the state. Some Maryland school systems are highly rural, and smaller K-12 than a single MCPS high school. What’s safe in that environment isn’t the same as what’s safe for a highly urban school district, and reopening decisions must be made alongside our public health officers, fully cognizant of the each county's COVID data.


Because of the evolving COVID reality, we have to develop plans that are safe, nimble, and incorporate evidence-based best practices for both public health AND effective instruction. It's all possible, we're all navigating a global pandemic together, we have the expertise we need -- now we just have to move out of the defensive crouch and move forward with an attitude of YES.

STATEMENT REGARDING COMMENTS IN SEPT. 27 SILVER CHIPS PRESS RELEASE

I deeply apologize for comments I made to the reporters from Silver Chips, the student newspaper for Montgomery Blair High School. I recognize that the comments hurt and offended fellow teachers and do not reflect my deep respect and gratitude for their dedicated work to support our students.


As a teacher myself, I know how hard MCPS staff members are working during this time of crisis. Many of us are balancing the work with supporting the distance learning of our own kids --- that can be a gargantuan task, particularly if you have young learners, or students with special needs. As rewarding as the work is, many of us are feeling fatigue and frustration working 7 days a week to get the job done.


It’s a bad idea to speak to the media when you’re tired and frustrated. My words do not reflect how much I value the hard work of MCPS educators. I am sorry to anyone who feels unappreciated by my poorly-worded comments. Offending hard-working fellow teachers is the last thing I ever intended to do.


I’m grateful to the many teachers and staff who volunteered for the important work on design teams last summer. I also worked on a curriculum review/writing team, which included writing a plan to bring small groups of students safely back into our buildings for specialized training. While teachers were working on these projects, MCEA (the teachers’ union) and MCPS were simultaneously engaged in difficult contract negotiations, impacting a more collaborative approach to create a plan for distance learning.


I hope you’ll read my blog below for a more thorough perspective. Teachers, MCPS, families - we all want to keep students and staff safe. I welcome a meeting with MCEA anytime to clear up any misunderstandings.

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Lynne Harris

- FOR BOARD OF EDUCATION -

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