A week of turbulence within Montgomery County Public Schools — fueled by a sudden gap in busing and a shifting response to COVID-19 — left some parents and employees upset and frustrated.

Since Monday, the first day of classes after the winter break, teachers, students and staff members have navigated:

  • Eleven schools shifted to virtual learning after they passed the district’s 5% positivity threshold among students, teachers and staff members — a metric used to trigger conversations about whether to close a school
  • More than 90 bus routes were canceled on short notice on Wednesday, a problem that remained unresolved in subsequent days 
  • More than 100 additional schools passed the 5% threshold after the first group of 11, but MCPS said those schools would remain open 
  • The district stopped updating a dashboard of positivity percentages for individual schools, despite the superintendent’s pledge that it would be done daily 
  • Finally, MCPS abandoned the 5% positivity threshold after conferring with state health officials and hearing it was not meant to be a trigger for closures

Critics, including many on social media, voiced their displeasure with the district leaders, particularly Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight.

McKnight has held that position since June 2021.  She was appointed to fill the job after former Superintendent Jack Smith retired in June. 

McKnight said in July that she planned to apply for the permanent position. She declined an interview request with Bethesda Beat on Friday.

A slate of candidates for the superintendent position is expected to be presented to the school board this month by consultants hired to lead the search.

Lyric Winik, the parent-student teacher association president for Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, said Friday that the district showed little respect for teachers, students and staff members countywide this week.

Winik said she was “stunned” there was no planning to address the bus driver shortage. She suggested that the school system could have coordinated with the county’s RideOn system or WMATA, or worked with the state to have the National Guard fill in on bus routes.

Different school clusters have different needs, but communication needs to be better in future weeks, she said. People on the “front lines” might have solutions, she added.

“They need to be transparent with their communication about how they are making decisions, what those decisions are going to be, and they also need to give people advance notice and walk them through advance scenarios,” Winik said.

Michele Moller, a media specialist at Glenallan Elementary School, said the entire week was “anxiety-provoking.”

The bus dismissal after shortages were announced was difficult given the short notice. School administrators had to scramble to find alternative plans for kids to get home from school, she said. 

After abandoning the 5% metric, the district will need to figure out another way to determine if a school is safe based on COVID-19 spread.

“Everyone is just super anxious about the number of COVID cases, but also, how are we going to do this?” said Moller, who has a son in ninth grade in MCPS. “What’s going to be the process? Will we have the time to change to virtual if that happens?”

Jason Makstein, who has a daughter in first grade at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, had similar concerns. 

Makstein kept his daughter home from school this week, to keep his family safe amid the current coronavirus surge. He’s disappointed that the Board of Education hasn’t issued a statement or planned an emergency meeting to handle the concerns.

Makstein said the 5% metric doesn’t account for kids, teachers and staff members who might test positive outside the school — and stay home. They would likely not pose a risk to the school, especially since the positive cases likely occurred over the holiday break.

He commended Frederick County Public Schools, to the north, which had a step-by-step process for schools if teachers tested positive and needed to isolate. 

“I think it comes down to leadership and … communication,” Makstein said. “If you don’t have a plan, it’s hard to communicate the plan.”

Amber Myren, a social studies teacher at Richard Montgomery High School, said there was confusion this week about whether her school was going to have to shift to virtual. 

On Thursday, her boss asked her to tell students to start preparing for virtual learning. Students were told over the intercom to grab anything from their lockers they would need for that instruction, Myren added. 

That evening, she found out through a teachers union email that Richard Montgomery was remaining open.

Her school was missing five building service workers, among other shortages, Myren said. The district needs to address issues like that in the coming weeks.

“I think they could do more about communicating ahead of time what these metrics are that they’re going to use [for schools to remain open], and a little bit more communication about what they’re doing to do for staffing shortages,” Myren said. 

Staff writer Caitlynn Peetz contributed to this report.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com