Upper Marlboro: By Scott Gelman – Prince George’s County, Maryland, parent Patrick Paschall said he and other parents were dancing on the neighborhood street corner upon learning that students would resume in-person learning this week.
Virtual learning, Paschall said, has been difficult. His wife’s job requires her to go into the office most of the time, leaving Paschall to watch his kindergartner and second-grader. He finds himself juggling meetings and other requests with making sure his kids have the resources they need to participate in virtual classes.
It’s often a daunting task because his second-grader has lunch at 10 a.m. and recess immediately after, and the kindergartner has lunch at 11 a.m., followed by recess.
“It’s a juggle, and it’s a struggle,” Paschall, who is also running for a state delegate seat, said. “My kids were really frustrated a lot of the time because their technology didn’t work, or they couldn’t find the pieces that they need, or they took a longer break than they realized they were supposed to.”
Still, Paschall and other parents have said the circumstances were better than the alternative: sending students into school buildings as omicron spread rapidly throughout the D.C. region.
On Tuesday, Prince George’s County students will return to the classroom for the first time in nearly a month. In December, school system CEO Monica Goldson announced a plan that included a temporary transition to virtual learning for the whole county, citing a rise in coronavirus cases, a move no other D.C.-region school system made.
In a letter to families last week, Goldson said, “My goal remains to keep our schools open safely, and I believe that we can do so for the duration of the 2021-22 academic year by following the science and proven mitigation strategies: Wear a mask. Stay home if you are sick.”
Ahead of the return to school, Goldson also announced new mitigation measures, including providing students and staff with free test kits and KN95 masks. The county is also planning to expand the number of students selected to participate in its pooled testing program, Goldson said.
Goldson’s decision has become a talking point in nearby D.C. and Montgomery County, where parents have praised the decision and urged leadership to consider doing the same. In D.C., grade levels and classes have been closed on a case-by-case basis. In Montgomery County, County Executive Marc Elrich has called for additional virtual options.
Tania Fuentes, a parent with five students in county schools, said while her older children are independent, the younger ones struggled with virtual learning. She praised teachers, who she said are concerned “with the child’s mental well-being.”
“I am so proud of Prince George’s County Public Schools because they did the right thing,” Fuentes said. “I know that being employed in a different county, I’m pretty disappointed in my employer for not making the same call. I know that other counties are also looking at Prince George’s as the example for virtual.”
Timothy Meyer, president of Mt. Rainier Elementary’s parent-teacher organization, said he was relieved at the decision to have two weeks of virtual learning after winter break because the school was one of the last in the county to report positive coronavirus cases before winter break.
“The two cases were reported on the Monday and Wednesday after we switched to virtual learning,” Meyer said. “I don’t have any doubt that had we actually been in school for that last week before the holiday, there would have been many more exposures. People would have had to be in quarantine over the Christmas holiday.”
And Meyer and Paschall want the school system to go a step further, calling for the county to require students and staff to be vaccinated. Goldson acknowledged she received a petition on the matter, Paschall said.
“As a parent, I will feel most comfortable when 100% of people within a PGCPS building are vaccinated,” Meyer said. “That really is kind of the pivot point, that really is the tipping point for myself and a lot of other parents.”
Paschall said he’s hopeful the school system’s approach will help limit spread.
“We know that there will probably be some glitches in their implementation because there are,” Paschall said. “We need to be as understanding as we can, but also, we have to be doing something in order to make sure that our kids are safe, and their teachers are safe.”