Across the Baltimore region students will soon embark on a school year like none they have known, one that will begin with teachers trying to recreate the culture and liveliness of a classroom on a computer screen.
Every school system in the Baltimore area — and most in Maryland — will start the year operating entirely online in a broad educational experiment no one wanted to try, even as officials hope and plan for a time when students may return to schools. That could be after the first quarter or the first semester.
But while lessons may be delivered differently, school leaders hope the schedules they’ve designed will recreate some of the traditional structure of the day when school begins, after Labor Day.
“This year is a year that will change education forever,” said Nancy Grasmick, a former Maryland state superintendent of schools.
“The pandemic and its duration will force educators and political leaders to rethink the traditional education system from top to bottom,” Grasmick said.
Administrators have drawn up plans that call for a far different version of school than existed during the chaotic first days of coronavirus shutdown in the spring. Every school system in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties expects students to show up for their live online classes at specific times each day. Attendance will be taken — sometimes at the beginning of the school day and sometimes at the beginning of every class — and students will be graded according to normal school standards.
Classes will be live video calls from home. School systems have widely varying expectations for how much time students will spend in live online classes — from just an hour and a half for many kindergartners to nearly six hours for Baltimore City’s high schoolers.
The structure of each school day has already become a hot topic, debated in Facebook chats, parent text messages and at the teachers union negotiating table. The questions: What are the health implications of so much screen time? How will working parents make sure their children show up at the right times for classes? How long can students remain engaged under these circumstances?
Maryland’s school districts have followed a national trend for online instruction.
“What you are seeing in Maryland is mirroring what we are seeing across the country for urban districts,” said Bree Dusseault, a researcher at the Center for Reinventing Public Education in Seattle, which has been tracking school system reopening plans. “I would say that remote learning is the name of the game as we start the 2020 school year.”
Most school systems had intended to bring students back to their buildings for a portion of the week, but pulled back almost overnight, according to the center’s tracking of 106 districts. On July 15, only 3% were planning to open offering only online classes. Two weeks later, as new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations soared in the U.S., districts began surveying teachers and parents. The landscape changed and more than half of those districts decided to begin strictly online.
In Maryland, school districts created a variety of plans for what the school day would look like. While many call for live instruction and seven-hour days with start and end times, the schedules for students can vary substantially. In general, the time for young students online is far more limited than for high schoolers.
Some parents say having their kids at home taking online classes fits their lifestyle, while others believe it is untenable and exhausting. Janice Lepore, who lives in Baltimore County, likes that her children have roughly the same schedules during the day. But she worries that some students will have a hard time sustaining attention online.
“I am concerned about the expectation for attention and engagement for an hour at a time, multiple times a day, multiple times a week, for young kids. That’s not going to work well for all,” she said.
Suzanne Tabor, a Catonsville parent, fears schools will ask too much of students ― and their parents who are working from home.
“I don’t see how this is sustainable for parents or children, and I won’t make them sit in front of a computer all day,” she said in an email. “I am trying to be optimistic and that it will work out well, but I am also going to chart my own course if it is not working out and being productive.”
“They are drawing a line in the sand that they want their students to get a lot of live instruction.”
Bree Dusseault, the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which is tracking school reopening plans
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School officials say they are aware of parent concerns because they have been getting plenty of feedback.
“We are looking to try to achieve a balance,” said Bill Barnes, Howard County’s chief academic officer. In Howard, Harford and Baltimore counties, the plans calls for live classes four days a week. Wednesdays are open, giving teachers time to pull together groups of students who need extra support, have calls with individual families or work with other teachers to plan classes.
In Howard, high schoolers will have four 45-minute periods of live classes with teachers four days a week.
In Baltimore County, elementary students will have 2 to 3½ hours of live instruction, and high schoolers will have 3½ hours. Chief Academic Officer Mary Boswell-McComas said after the live classes end students will be asked to work independently.
She noted that in normal times, a teacher almost never stands in front of a class for a full period. Classes include a variety of activities, including groups of students working together and independent work.
“We ... are just going to have to work together to have a system that will work for students,” she said. That may mean finding a tutor for a student who is lost, she said, or calling a student and helping her through a stumbling block.
Anne Arundel has a similar academic day that runs from 8:30 a.m. to about 3:30 p.m four days a week. Instruction on the other day of the week — Wednesday — is in the morning. The afternoon is left free for independent student activities, as well as time for teacher training and teacher check-ins with families. Overall, teachers will still be working their seven-hour days.
Baltimore City and Carroll County have designed a school day with live instruction five days a week, but the two districts vary on the length of time students students work independently. While Carroll has just under 3 hours of live instruction for its high schoolers, the city has 5½ hours and nearly 2 hours for its preschoolers.
Most school districts have tried to implement a school day that is similar to their traditional day, in part because they must adhere to state regulations that require a certain number of minutes in school a day.
Dusseault said the schedules have pros and cons, but in general the belief is that students are more likely to stay interested and engaged in their course work if they are live with teachers because it most closely mimics a traditional school day.
Baltimore City’s schedule, she said, has more live instruction than any other district the center surveyed across the country except Prince George’s County. The city schools’ plan is also more closely aligned to what private schools that chose to start online are offering, and gives all students access to the most rigorous course work if they want it.
The city’s plan is also the most detailed, Dusseault said, giving parents more transparency and information.
“It is referencing themes of racial equality and accelerated learning, a commitment to serve all students. ... This is a district that is trying its hardest to educate students,” said Dusseault. “They are drawing a line in the sand that they want their students to get a lot of live instruction.”
Teachers unions have been pushing back on the schedules, saying that they involve too much time in front of computers and that teaching remotely involves creates additional work. While union contracts do not allow them to negotiate over the school schedule, they can negotiate their working conditions. Baltimore City and county school districts are currently in negotiations with their teachers.
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“We just want to make sure that there is not too much screen times for adults or children,” said Baltimore County’s teacher union president Cindy Sexton. She said teachers want to know there are hard limits on the amount of teaching hours and some flexibility in the schedule. In a normal in-person school day, breaks are built into a schedule. Students change classes, take bathroom breaks and walk around their rooms sometimes, she said. Those breaks need to be worked into the online schedule too, she said.
She said teachers want more planning time because online lessons are more difficult to plan, especially because teachers will not be able to hand out paper materials they often use and they will have to find online substitutes.
Cheryl Bost, the state teachers union president, said many teachers would like the option of teaching live from their classrooms, but not all school systems have decided whether that will be allowed. Vocational, chemistry and kindergarten classes are all difficult to teach from home, she said.
“It seems the district is more focused on how to fill up the school day for staff than what is going to be good for students,” said Diamonté Brown, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.
While they may not be able to negotiate the issue, Brown said, the district ought to consider their viewpoint. The BTU is proposing four hours of teaching a day, including only 75 minutes of live instruction.