The big news this week is that the over 100,000 Montgomery County residents ages 5-11 will now be eligible to be vaccinated. Our top priority is to vaccinate our kids as quickly, effectively, and equitably as possible. I encourage all Montgomery County parents of 5 – 11-year-olds to vaccinate your children, rely on credible information and resources, and please reach out to your pediatrician, health care providers or to our Health and Human Services department if you have any questions or concerns.
Both the County and private providers will be providing doses. It is important to note, we are not the primary distributor of this vaccine. Two thirds of the vaccine is going to other entities including pharmacies, private physicians, and health clinics. The County began vaccinating children this week, and County clinics will offer special hours for vaccinations and school-based clinics on Saturdays and Sundays. I know many parents are eager to get their child vaccinated – if you are having difficulty getting an appointment, please be patient. For more information, go to http://www.govaxmoco.com
REDUCING QUARANTINE IN THE SCHOOLS
Having our 5 – 11-year-olds vaccinated will also help reduce the number of students missing class due to quarantining. On Monday, I joined school and health officials for a press conference to update changes to our Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) Quarantine guidelines. The changes are to help minimize the number of students out of school while also protecting the public health. When our students returned to full-time instruction two months ago, it was a major milestone for the families of the more than 165,000 MCPS students. But as we all know, it has been difficult for our teachers, staff, families and especially our students. Literacy readiness dropped 35% for second graders and math readiness for fifth graders was down 25% at the end of the 2020-2021 school year as compared to the year before the pandemic, in 2018-2019. And learning loss was even worse among low-income, Latino, Black, and English-learners.
As a former elementary teacher, I understand firsthand how concerning these numbers are. This is why ensuring that our schools are as safe as possible so that kids can stay in school will continue to be a top priority. When I was with Interim School Superintendent Dr. Monifa McKnight on the first day of school this year, I said, “We must be prepared and honest with ourselves that this school year is going to be difficult, but we will make it through by working together.” In the early weeks, parents and others were expressing concerns about quarantine practices, which MCPS has continued to modify. I am pleased that, even in the early weeks, only 1,700 were quarantined, in a school system with more than 165,000 students. And as each day and week have gone by – students, teachers, and principals have better grasped how to manage students in this environment even though teaching and learning continues to be particularly challenging in this environment. I am appreciative that MCPS administrators have been and continue to work with our HHS department to find solutions and best practices, to dramatically reduce the quarantine numbers in only eight weeks. This is incredible progress, and we did it by working together, not just blaming one another or making excuses.
PLEASE CONTINUE TO WEAR MASKS INDOORS IN PUBLIC AREAS
As for our COVID-19 cases this week, we are a bit higher than where we were last week, and we continue to hover between “Substantial” and “Moderate” Transmission levels according to the CDC. I was disappointed that the County Council, sitting as the Board of Health, chose to tie the mask mandate to a specific number of days – I had urged that we rely on public health guidance to determine the safest time to lift the mandate. However, the Council has stayed with an approach that is somewhat confusing. Currently, there is no mask mandate, but I would urge everyone to continue to wear masks when you are indoors in publicly accessible areas. The focus and fussing over this mask mandate is playing into the fears of extremists who are conflating a good health practice with limiting their personal freedom – which is frankly absurd.
Throughout this pandemic, masks have been critical to minimizing COVID-19’s spread and at this stage, because of our high vaccination combined with the use of masks, we felt confident in relaxing other regulations in regard to the use of indoor spaces. With winter clearly up on us, and more activities moving indoors, we do have to be aware that opportunities for COVID-19 to spread will increase. Whether or not we have a mandate, wearing a mask and getting vaccinated probably remain the two most health-conscious things you can do. Mandate or no mandate, let’s be smart and considerate of others. A mask protects against COVID but also against the flu and common cold. If you and your family want to avoid sickness this fall and winter, wear a mask.
WE ARE ENJOYING OUR ‘STREATERIES’!
It is evident that despite progress we have made in combatting the pandemic with our extremely high vaccination rate and low case rates, many of our residents feel more comfortable gathering outside. Our Shared Streets program - commonly known as “streateries” - has been a popular program to serve that demand. We started creating “streateries” at the beginning of the COVID-19 health crisis, allowing residents and businesses to use public spaces for in-street activities such as biking, walking, outdoor dining and retail activity. I am pleased to announce that this program will be extended at least through March. Streateries have brought friends, neighbors and communities together, keeping them safe from transmitting the virus as well as from vehicular traffic. This program has also been economically beneficial to our business community, and I am glad it is continuing. Streateries are operating in Downtown Bethesda, Wheaton, and Silver Spring. If you haven’t been to one of our streateries, I encourage you to stop by. I hope this popular program continues and expands throughout Montgomery County.
CONTINUING TO CARE FOR OUR HOMELESS
Another positive outcome of the pandemic has been the improvement in how this County has treated and provided resources for its homeless population. Out of the over 1700 County residents that have died of COVID-19, only two were residents of our homeless shelters. A silver lining to this pandemic has been our decision to provide shelter to our homeless year-round. Prior to the pandemic, our County only housed the homeless during the cold weather months. This was unacceptable, and quite frankly it should not have taken a pandemic for us to do right by this population. I am committed to ensuring that this County not only continues to commit to our plan to end homelessness but will always have shelter available no matter what time of year it is.
Unfortunately, our current County facilities supporting homeless sheltering and associated services are insufficient for the current population and future projection. And due to COVID-19, the maximum occupancy at each County homeless shelter has decreased to allow for social distancing and spacing of beds. The current facility that provides these services for men, will no longer be available starting spring of 2021. Space in recreation centers that has been used to house men and women during the pandemic must be replaced so the recreation centers can reopen to the public.
That is why we will be opening a new homeless shelter, which I toured a couple of weeks ago. It will be a two-story building located in North Bethesda to provide congregation, meals, and medical and case management services. This 30,000-square-foot-building will be renovated and changed from commercial office use to a homeless shelter with 200 beds as well as bathing, eating, computer, and administrative space. This facility will ensure that a full complement of services is available to the people seeking emergency shelter in Montgomery County.
I want to thank our Department of General Service teams who are working seven days of week to get this facility open as soon as possible. I am also grateful to our Health and Human Services and contractors who work tirelessly every day of the year to help this vulnerable population.
CELEBRATING THE “FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS”
I want to recognize Diwali, the Hindu New Year “Festival of Lights” that’s also celebrated by Jains and Sikhs. I was happy to celebrate Diwali at the Executive Office Building with our Indian community. Diwali celebrates the symbolic victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and inspires us to renew our commitment to doing what is right, equitable, and humane in the new year. It was wonderful to be able to celebrate once again in person on this joyous occasion.
NOVEMBER MARKS EMANCIPATION DAY AND NATIVE AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH
This week we recognized Emancipation Day in Maryland, which was Monday, Nov. 1. In 1864 on this day, the enslaved people in this state were freed because of a vote by Maryland residents that ended slavery – we were the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line to end slavery and to end it by a vote rather than federal or military action. And November is also Native American Heritage Month when we recognize the history of the indigenous people of this country and the struggles they had and continue to have. America’s treatment of native populations continues to perpetuate the grave injustices they have endured for centuries.
As demonstrated by the recent census, Montgomery County is one of the most diverse communities in this country, and my administration is committed to equity, engagement, and education. It is important to understand the histories and the contributions to our County. The more we know about each other, the stronger our communities become.
As always, my appreciation for all of you.