Last week, NASA Astronaut and Montgomery County native, Dr. Jessica Watkins, made history becoming the first Black woman aboard the International Space Station. Dr. Watkins cited her early educational experience at Sally Ride Elementary School in Gaithersburg as where she was initially inspired toward her historic journey to space. Dr. Watkins success is a testament to the power and influence of our schools, and especially our teachers.
This week is National Teacher Appreciation Week. I want to thank, and salute, the 13,000 MCPS teachers as well as all our private school teachers who work so hard to teach our young people. As we look back over the last few years and the unprecedented challenges our teachers faced, none of us could have imagined the adversities that our teachers had to overcome. They adapted to the changes in instruction and the flexibility needed to deal with virtual learning, staffing shortages, and protecting themselves and their students from COVID.
This week, and every week, I encourage everyone to thank our teachers – and all our school staff - and show them the appreciation and respect they deserve. Teacher Appreciation Week isn’t just for students or parents. I am pretty sure we all have been inspired or changed for the better by a teacher at some time in our lives.
It has been a long time since I was student in MCPS, and yet I can still remember the names, faces, and lessons of the teachers that made a difference in my life. As a former elementary school teacher, the most appreciated I felt was when I would run into students years later - or even when they were adults themselves - and they would say thanks for something that I taught them.
Our teachers and all our school staff are expected to do so much well beyond the curriculum in the classroom - their work seldom ends when the school day is over. They are always thinking about their students and finding new and innovative ways to engage them. They inspire our children and help nurture the future leaders of our communities.
COVID Cases continue to rise, new Omicron variant on the horizon:
This week our COVID case rates continue to climb but our positivity rates have plateaued over the past several weeks. This is a good sign that we should see this current surge of cases begin to recede soon. It is important to note that our, hospitalization rates remain low, and thankfully we are avoiding severe cases and deaths. Currently we are hovering between CDC Community level LOW and MEDIUM but are hoping with our rates expected to decline that we will remain in the LOW community level.
97% of cases in our region are now the BA.2 strain and we are monitoring the new BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants that have been identified in South Africa. These two new strains of COVID are more transmissible than the current BA.2 strain and could evade antibodies from vaccinations and prior infections.
As we prepare for this new variant, we must continue to focus on our vaccination and boosting efforts as well as on those most vulnerable to COVID – our older residents, those who are immune compromised, as well as children under 5 – who are not eligible to be vaccinated yet. We continue to monitor cases in congregate settings and are working with nursing homes and assisted living facilities to best protect their vulnerable residents. And as we wait for FDA approval of pediatric vaccines, we are preparing and collaborating with County pediatricians as well as planning outreach and clinics in communities that have lower vaccination rates.
An attack on women’s rights, freedoms, and health:
On another health-related issue in the news this week, I am shocked and outraged about the draft opinion that was leaked from the Supreme Court. If this opinion stands when the Court makes their ruling in June, this will be a travesty. This is a complete regression and attack on women’s rights, freedoms, and their health.
This potential court decision is also the beginning of a slippery slope that will impact federal funding and protections toward women and maternal health. I want to thank Montgomery County Delegate Ariana Kelly and our entire State Senate and House Delegation for the work they accomplished in Annapolis to protect the rights of women in Maryland and expand access to abortion. Fortunately, we live in a state where a women’s right to choose still matters and is not under attack. Additionally, in my FY23 recommended budget, we have proposed over $34 million dollars in minority and community health services – which includes women’s health services, maternity services, and our Montgomery Cares program for uninsured adults.
FY23 Budget Update: County Council approves labor agreements, affordable housing fund needed:
I want to thank the County Council for their unanimous approval last week of the labor agreements which lay out enhancements in compensation and benefits for County employees. The Council’s action gives us the tools we need to recruit and retain workers needed to continue to provide the services that County residents expect.
However, I am concerned about the Council’s staff recommendations to cut the $40 million dollars we allocated toward to the Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing Fund, or NOAH. Montgomery County lost 20,000 affordable units between 2000 and 2017, and we are projected to lose up to 11,000 more by 2030. The funds that I put in my recommended budget would allow us to help our affordable housing partners act quickly in areas that are rapidly becoming more expensive, like along the Purple Line corridor.
The dedication of County resources in the NOAH fund will support a focused effort to preserve these at-risk properties and will provide much needed additional capital to preserve and create affordable housing units. I hope the County Council will support our recommended allocation for this fund so we can start tackling this affordable housing shortage with greater urgency.
May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month:
I want to acknowledge that this week is also the beginning of our Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Accounting for nearly 16% of the County population, our Asian American and Pacific Islander population is made up of over 20 different ethnic subgroups. Over 40% of the State of Maryland’s Asian American and Pacific Islander population lives in Montgomery County.
I am looking forward to attending various events around the county throughout this month. For many of our communities and organizations, this will be their first AAPI events in person in three years. I encourage all Montgomery County residents to recognize and learn about all our AAPI cultures that help make the diversity of this County so vibrant and enriching.
Saluting our Officers and Employees in Correctional and Rehabilitation Department:
This week is also National Correctional Officers Week and I want to thank all the Montgomery County Correctional and Rehabilitation Department employees for their dedication, professionalism, and commitment to serve and protect our Correctional and Rehabilitation inmates as well as our efforts toward improving their lives and reducing recidivism.
These employees have very difficult jobs to begin with and working under pandemic conditions over the last two years has made their daily challenges even more difficult. But they have adapted and adjusted to keep themselves and those who they protect as safe as possible. I thank and appreciate them for their noble service.
Honoring those who made ultimate sacrifice:
This week, I joined the Montgomery County Police Department at their annual Fallen Heroes Memorial Service. This year we mark MCPD’s 100th Anniversary. Since the founding of MCP in 1922, 19 officers were killed in the line of duty. They confronted the unexpected and paid the ultimate price.
Our police officers are expected to perform their duties fairly and with impartiality. They are expected to respect the rights of others while ensuring their own safety. This is a difficult process and sadly it has led to disaster and tragedy. And danger presents itself in many forms. Some of our officers killed in the line of duty were in automobile collisions or were hit by cars, such as the December 2015 incident when MCPD officer Noah A. Leotta was struck and killed by a drunk driver while performing a traffic stop on Rockville Pike.
Ceremonies such as this one, not only honor our fallen heroes, but also their families and friends. I was honored to attend and give remarks. Montgomery County will not forget these 19 officers, their families, and their sworn brothers and sisters who risk their lives for our safety every day.
Finally, I want to wish all the mothers, aunts, guardians, and grandmothers in Montgomery County a wonderful Mother’s Day this upcoming weekend. Please remember to not only show appreciation to your mother, but to all those who are mother figures in your life.
Thank you and have a great week.