Plan to be reassessed in November 2020 for Second Semester

Dear Parents, Guardians, Students and Staff:

I am writing to provide an important update on our Fall 2020 recovery plans. MCPS has been working closely with county and state health officials on the potential reopening of schools. Yesterday (July 20), we received additional guidance from Dr. Travis Gayles, county health officer, in which he shared that “based upon the current state of surveillance and epidemiological data, I would not recommend in-person instruction for students inside school  buildings at this time. I recommend investing in a virtual instruction model until, at earliest, the completion of the first quarter in November, with consideration for virtual instruction through the first semester.” As I have shared previously, our plan has always envisioned starting in a virtual-only model. However, given this updated guidance, the safest choice for our district is to remain in a virtual-only instructional model through the first semester—January 29, 2021; or until state and local health officials determine conditions in our county allow for students to return safely after the first semester. This decision includes the cancellation of all fall and winter sports. Working with Dr. Gayles and county elected officials, we will reassess at the end of the first quarter (November 9, 2020) to determine if we are able to implement a phased blended model in the second semester (beginning February 1, 2021). We will continue to engage with our community as we continue to navigate this incredibly complex situation.

We anticipate that Governor Larry Hogan and Dr. Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools, will also provide an update on the state’s recovery plan for schools this week. We will review their guidance and make all necessary adjustments to align our plans.

We continue to explore creative ways to support students receiving special services and families with significant challenges in accessing curriculum through a virtual model. We also know that this decision to extend virtual instruction will significantly impact the work schedules of many parents in our county. We are seeking the ability to allow buildings to remain open in a limited capacity for essential purposes, including meal service; to support access to technology and other materials; and for use by some child care providers.

On August 6, 2020, we will provide an updated plan to the Board of Education. This update will reflect adjustments stemming from changes in guidance from local health officials and the important feedback we’ve received from students, staff and the community. The Board of Education will vote on this plan at that time.

We are building on what we learned during the spring to provide a robust and dynamic virtual learning experience for our students. Our staff is being provided additional professional development to enhance their instructional abilities in a virtual model; we have put systems in place to ensure all students have access to digital devices and access to the internet when they are away from school buildings; and we are building in additional time for student support and learning opportunities. We are also streamlining digital tools and platforms to make it easier for our students, staff and families to engage in teaching and learning.

Our students are the heart of what we do and why we exist. There is no doubt in my mind that we all want what’s best for students. This decision is incredibly difficult as we know how much students need school for their academic success and social-emotional well-being. We take the immense responsibility of ensuring staff and student safety, educating our students and creating opportunities for all seriously. Thank you for your continued support and collaboration as we work together to meet the needs of our students, staff and families.

Jack R. Smith, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Schools


Boundary Analysis Update

The following is a summary found in the Bethesda Beat concerning the boundary analysis study:

Findings from the report, by topic

Assignment stability: This refers to how often MCPS students are affected by boundary changes. The school district’s goal is to not change students’ school assignments more than once at any level, and to “keep student assignments stable for as long a period as possible.”

The boundary analysis interim report says:

  • MCPS boundaries have changed 131 times since 1984. Only 16 boundary changes have happened since 2010. There were 107 changes between 1984 and 2006. Most boundary changes since 1984 were related to school building projects or the construction of new facilities.
  • Over the past nine years, middle school students were the most likely to be affected by boundary changes. High school students were the least likely to be redistricted. Less than 1% of middle school students and 0.5% of all elementary students were redistricted each year.
  • The Clarksburg High School cluster has had 10 boundary changes since 1984, while the Poolesville cluster has had the fewest, with one change. The Walter Johnson and Walt Whitman clusters have each had two boundary changes since 1984. All other clusters averaged five boundary changes, aside from the two consortia, which each had about 20.

Utilization: This is a measure of how many students are enrolled in a school compared to its capacity. A school is considered “overutilized” if its capacity exceeds 100%. MCPS’ target enrollment is between 80% and 100% of a school’s capacity.

Findings from the interim report say:

  • Of the 208 schools in Montgomery County, 109 are currently over capacity. On average, high schools are at 103% capacity, middle schools are at 97% and elementary schools are at 102%.
  • Elementary schools along and south of I-270 and U.S. 370 are most often overenrolled. Middle schools south of U.S. 370 and U.S. 29 are more commonly overenrolled, as are high schools south of U.S. 370 and east of I-270.
  • Since 2009, the number of elementary schools more than 92 students over capacity has remained steady, while the number of high schools overenrolled by 150 students or more quadrupled.
  • Smaller elementary schools, generally with capacity for fewer than 400 students, are more apt to be overenrolled.
  • There are some existing disparities between enrollment of adjacent schools. The widest gap at the elementary level shows a school at nearly 157% capacity is nearest to a school at about 80% capacity. Meanwhile, two high schools have “utilization rates that are very dissimilar” from nearby schools.
  • Three middle schools in the county are below MCPS’ target enrollment, and each is adjacent to “somewhat overutilized” middle schools.
  • Title I schools, with higher concentrations of students in poverty, are more often overenrolled than other schools.
  • Consortia schools are more often over capacity than cluster schools. The two consortia — downcounty and northeast — include several high schools, while school clusters have one main high school.

Diversity: Part of the intent of the boundary analysis is to examine student demographics. For the project, consultants used race and ethnicity, socioeconomic background and English language proficiency as measures of diversity.

WXY’s report says:

  • While no demographic group makes up more than 40% of MCPS’ overall enrollment, nearly half of all MCPS schools have a student body in which one racial group makes up 50% or more of students. Most schools are considered diverse, with two or three racial groups making up at least 15% of a school’s students.
  • The report says “schools near to one another are often very dissimilar … in terms of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic composition.” It also says cluster boundaries “may contribute to racial and/or socio-economic isolation to some degree.”
  • School boundaries with irregular shapes have the most different levels of student body diversity compared to neighboring schools.
  • Schools generally reflect the diversity of their communities.

Proximity: MCPS aims to have as many students as possible within a defined “walk zone,” which determines students who are eligible to ride buses to and from schools.

According to the interim report:

  • About 31% of all students live within their school’s “walk zone.” Walk zones vary in distance depending on grade level.
  • Elementary students live an average of 1.2 miles from their assigned school. Middle school students live 2.1 miles away and high school students live 2.5 miles away from their schools on average.
  • About 66% of all students attend the school closest to their home. The rest are assigned to schools farther away.
  • Students in more densely populated areas generally live closer to the schools to which they are assigned.

Community engagement: Consultants collected and transcribed more than 4,000 comments from community members during the six large-scale informational meetings held in late 2019 and early 2020.

Several pointed to: a) the importance of ensuring MCPS uses accurate enrollment projections, b) concern about the school district’s policy that suggests diversity be given special consideration in boundary studies and c) the importance of students living close to their schools, according to WXY’s report.

Consultants highlighted several instances in which they changed their approach to community engagement after receiving feedback from the community.

Often, the adjustments were to tweak the presentation to provide greater clarity about data or creating frequently asked question pages online. After one particularly tense meeting at Julius West Middle School, where community members wanted time to ask questions of consultants directly, consultants added time for a question-and-answer session to each subsequent meeting.

Consultants estimate that about 2,250 people attended the six community meetings held about the analysis. Most attendees were white and Asian parents of MCPS students, according to the WXY report. About 40% of attendees resided in the Bethesda area, while about 30% were from the Silver Spring area.

Nearly half of all people who attended said they were “skeptical” of the process, while about 31% said it “is an important effort that we need.”