Tens of thousands of Maryland’s public school students haven’t made the transition to distance learning despite efforts by their teachers and educators to connect with them.
A recent survey of school superintendents showed that as many as 25% of students in some districts either had not signed on to the internet to do lessons or hadn’t picked up a packet of papers to complete since schools closed last month due to coronavrus. Some districts reported they had connected with all but 1% of students.
Although some of the students just haven’t shown up for virtual school, school officials say their attendance could be complicated by many factors.
The highest poverty areas of the state — where students are less likely to have their own laptop at home or reliable internet — have the highest percentage of students who have lost their connection to school. In some of those areas, students also have to travel to pick up paper lessons.
The survey, gathered by the Public School Superintendent’s Association of Maryland, polled districts between April 7 and April 13.
“I think it is important to point out that it is just a snapshot. We were all in various stages of rolling out our learning plans,” said Dan Curry, the superintendent in Calvert County and president of the Maryland association.
In Baltimore City, as the system undertook what one principal called “a herculean effort” to buy new Chromebooks and hand them out in the past two weeks, about 75% of students have engaged online. The school system does not have data from charter schools, so it is unclear exactly how many students have been doing school work for the past month.
In Baltimore County, about 19% of students — at least 20,000 children — had not signed onto the school district’s learning system, including a large percentage of elementary school students. The numbers are likely to change quickly as the system distributes 10,000 laptops beginning this week to students in grades three through five. The school system already had the laptops in the schools, but they weren’t taken home by students.
Howard County started its distance learning after most other counties, and no students were getting lessons online during the period of the survey. However, school officials reported they have been in touch in some way with 99% of students.
Anne Arundel County has about 10% of its students who haven’t shown up for digital class and the school system hasn’t been able to get in touch with. For Carroll County, the figure is about 1%. In Carroll and Harford counties, where there are fewer laptops available, a larger percentage of students are learning with paper packets from school. In Harford about 88% learn online, and the school system has mailed packets to the remaining students. In Carroll, about 19% of students receive packets.
Adjusting to the new form of learning has been difficult for families, but schools always have had staff who checked on students with poor attendance. Harford County’s head of student support, Bernard Henninger, said teachers are making the initial outreach to students to try to get them engaged, but when that fails social workers and pupil personnel workers are reaching out with emails and phone calls.
In some cases, Henninger said they are just trying to find out whether a family needs help connecting to the internet, in other cases, they want to make sure the family doesn’t have a crisis the school system might be able to help with.
In normal times, social workers would make visits to a student’s home, but Henninger said given social distancing measures those visits have been put on hold.
Breaking News Alerts
In Frederick County, about 99% of students already are learning remotely, one of the highest percentages in the state. The 44,000-student system already had a device for every child, had ordered 1,000 internet hot spots and began planning for a school closure before it happened. Superintendent Theresa Alban said the system worked with the union to give teachers seven hours of intensive training in remote instruction and then passed out another 3,000 computers to students without devices at home in March.
“I think districts who had already started one-to-one had a definite advantage,” Alban said.
Districts like Baltimore City and Prince George’s County that bought devices this spring had to configure them after delivery with software that works with the school system’s learning platform and prevents students from accessing inappropriate materials on the web. Prince George’s has reported 20% of its students absent from instruction.
The need for technology and connectivity isn’t just a factor of poverty. In some cases, school superintendents said broadband is simply not available in rural areas. Superintendents in Allegany and Talbot counties said some families living along waterfront shorelines or in the mountains have unreliable internet.
School leaders are looking for alternatives, such as hot spots that can be mounted on the outside of school buildings to allow students and teachers to drive up and connect.
While the so-called attendance survey is a snapshot of progress school systems in the state have made toward switching to a radically new way of delivering their lessons, school leaders have said they haven’t yet determined whether students are really engaged in learning. The survey counted a student as learning if they had signed on once or picked up a packet at a food distribution site once.
Alban said the next step is getting a sense of how consistently students are doing the work. He told a story about a math teacher walking through a downtown park in Frederick who saw a student from afar who waved at him. Alban said when the teacher asked the student why he wasn’t participating in his class, the middle school student said, “You mean I am supposed to do math too?”