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What went into MCPS’ decision to close schools during plane incident

A small plane stuck after it crashed into power lines, knocking out electricity for tens of thousands of residents, in Gaithersburg, Md. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

When a plane crashed into a power line tower in Gaithersburg on Sunday evening, Montgomery County Public Schools announced that night all of its schools would be closed Monday due to ongoing power outages. But power was restored in all of the system’s impacted school buildings hours before classes would have started. Still, schools remained closed.

Some parents were confused by the decision. They emphasized the critical need for students to be in class, especially after academic data showed students were behind due to the pandemic and they had been on Thanksgiving break most of last week.

“We should learn from covid that we have to be careful when we close schools, because it does impact the kids’ learning,” Maria Szokolai, a parent of a fifth- and seventh-grader, said.

After the plane crashed and knocked out power to nearly 100,000 homes and businesses, a school system representative met with other county leaders and emergency officials Sunday evening to discuss the status of the rescue operation and when power could be restored. After that meeting, school officials held a call at 7 p.m. Sunday to determine whether schools could be safely opened the next day, said Jessica Baxter, a spokeswoman for the school district who participated in the call. On that call was the school system’s communications team, the emergency management commanders assigned to different school clusters and building facility and management staff.

At the time, Pepco projected that power would not be restored until 6 p.m. Monday, Baxter said in interviews and an email detailing school officials’ actions Sunday night and Monday morning.

Forty-four of 210 schools — almost 21 percent of the district’s schools were without power after the crash. Five central facilities — including two bus depots — were out as well, which would have impacted how many buses were able to pick up students on Monday, Baxter said.

During another call at 9 p.m., school officials learned that Pepco had retracted its initial projection on when power would be back online, Baxter said. Rather, the company no longer wanted to give an estimated time of repair. Emergency officials still had not rescued the pilot and passenger from the plane.

Meanwhile, school staff had been checking computer networks to see if they were online, and some staff had been dispatched to buildings to survey the power status and respond to security alarms that had gone off, Baxter said.

After another check-in between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., school officials recommended Superintendent Monifa McKnight close all schools. She approved, and the closure was announced at roughly 11:50 p.m.

“This decision is being made out of an abundance of caution for the safety of drivers and walkers and also due to the significant impact on building and support operations, including bus depots,” read the message to the school community.

The school system’s policy dictates that families be notified of a school closure no later than 5 a.m. — though ideally the announcement is made the night before if possible. The school system generally closes the entire district, rather than conducting a partial closure, since there is a significant portion of students who take the bus across the county for magnet or after school programs. The superintendent ultimately makes the decision to close schools, or appoints a designee.

Amy Klinger — director of programs and a co-founder of the Educator’s School Safety Network — said schools in these situations are often weighing, “Do I want the bad PR if we close when we could’ve stayed open or do I want the bad PR if we stayed open and there were minor glitches?”

Schools are often in a no-win situation. There are some situations — like a large blizzard — where it’s clear in advance the school can’t open the next day, but other situations should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Klinger said.

Pepco announced power had been restored just after 1:30 a.m., but some residents continued to report outages on social media.

After the school system made the closure announcement, officials met for another call at 4 a.m. Monday. Though the power was back on, they were still uncertain whether they would have been able to operate schools safely, Baxter said. One school’s HVAC system was down, and staff members needed to check that food was still safe and that water was running. Several systems, including computer and communications, also needed restarts, Baxter said.

“As of 4 a.m. PEPCO has restored electric power to all MCPS schools and offices. After a widespread power outage, staff need to assess all buildings for their safety and other systems readiness such as heat, water and network connectivity; this work will be done throughout the day,” read a second message from the school system.

“It would have been a really difficult and challenging feat to try to get the normal school operation today without any impact,” Baxter said.