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Extended state school closure has CCPS engaged in ‘Herculean effort’ of transitioning to distance learning

School buses sit idle in a lot a Johnson Bus Service, LLC in Westminster Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Superintendent Karen Salmon announced Wednesday that public schools will stay closed through April 24 due to the coronavirus threat, leaving open the possibility that students might still return if the health emergency abates.
School buses sit idle in a lot a Johnson Bus Service, LLC in Westminster Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Superintendent Karen Salmon announced Wednesday that public schools will stay closed through April 24 due to the coronavirus threat, leaving open the possibility that students might still return if the health emergency abates.(Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

The closure of public schools in Maryland due to the coronavirus crisis was extended through April 24, meaning students — whose last day in school was March 13 — won’t return to classrooms until April 27 at the earliest.

State Superintendent Karen Salmon made the announcement Wednesday during a news conference alongside Gov. Larry Hogan. School districts will have to swiftly retool to begin teaching nearly 900,000 students statewide with “distance learning” expected to begin on March 30.

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“We were anticipating Dr. Salmon was going to make some sort of extension to the closures based on everything that’s been happening with COVID-19," Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Steve Lockard told the Times Wednesday evening.

Carroll County principals have been meeting virtually with school staff to train, prepare and plan as much as possible, he said. But he acknowledged that the work for families and schools to switch to distance learning is “a Herculean effort.”

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The school system is planning to distribute laptops to students who need them to participate in virtual learning at a distance.

Lockard sent a thank-you to CCPS staff working to clean and sanitize buildings, deliver meals, reconfigure curricula and train in necessary technology. He said he believes the school system is in “as best of a shape as we can be to continue learning opportunities for students with all that we’re dealing with.”

New learning model

In an email to families Wednesday, CCPS officials wrote, “Like you, we are devastated that this has happened and recognize the challenges this will bring.​ We anticipated that this could be a possibility and for the last few weeks have been preparing ways in which to provide continuity of learning for our students. Our goal is to keep students engaged as much as possible through a distance learning approach.”

Last week, CCPS began surveying families about their internet and device resources in case of an extended closure.

“We know that our families are in different places when it comes to internet access and technology in the home,” the system wrote.

During the initial two-week school closure that began March 16, CCPS said students would not be expected to progress in learning new curriculum, but were provided with materials, both digital and paper, to review and maintain concepts.

Going into the next four weeks, CCPS plans to use digital tools like Google Classroom software that schools had already begun using in the 2019-20 school year. Offline, teachers will deploy workbooks and learning packets.

Lockard said that some of the hard-copy materials might be less immediate than digital ones as school systems all around the country are rushing to order the same kinds of materials.

Expanding virtual learning to give students more access to classes and credits was one of Lockard’s goals going into the school year, but certainly not during a pandemic, he said, commenting on the irony of the situation: “We’ve completely expedited our focus on that, not for the reason that we wanted to.”

“Please keep in mind that transitioning to a new learning model will continue to take time and patience. Do not expect starting Monday, March 30, that everything will be completely in place. We stated in an earlier communication that this will not be perfect, nor can this be expected to simply replace our traditional face-to-face, in-school instructional delivery. That is not our expectation,” the school system wrote in the message.

The email also provided some advice for families as they face an unprecedented several weeks.

Parents who are essential workers will have to find child care, while others will have to learn to work from home while also teaching their children. State officials have identified organizations willing to provide care for 1,200 school-age children of Maryland’s essential workers, including YMCAs, the Maryland School for the Blind, public libraries, parks and recreation facilities, and Boys & Girls Clubs, Salmon said. Essential workers seeking childcare were directed to call a state hotline at 1-877-261-0060.

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The school system is waiting for state guidance regarding many aspects such as testing, graduation and graduation requirements for high school seniors. Lockard said he will share that information as soon as it’s available.

An FAQ for distance learning will soon be available at carrollk12.org.

“As we move into this distance learning approach, your child’s teachers and principal will be the best source of answers to questions you may have about distance learning, support, and guidance as it relates to the learning opportunities for your students," the school system wrote. “We are navigating uncharted waters, and we are proud of how everyone is doing whatever they can to step up to meet the challenge.”

CCPS Food Services continues to provide three meals a day to any person younger than 18, regardless if they are enrolled in CCPS. Pickup spots are located throughout the county and staffed by school faculty and staff. The CCPS International line, 410-386-1699, is providing information to families who are English learners.

Judy Klinger, supervisor of school counseling, said all departments, from Student Support to Health Services to Dining Services, have been working behind the scenes to determine what serving students will look like in the coming weeks.

They’re putting together protocols and procedures, but all of the specifics were a few days away as of Wednesday.

For her department, Naviance, an online career and college readiness tool that has been put in use countywide is one resource students can access from home. They’re also working to prepare transcripts and update changing scholarship deadline information.

The silver lining, she said, was that all staff “are eager to help students in a caring and compassionate way. They miss these kids and are anxious to do whatever it is we can do.”

Teachers react

Kathryn Henn, kindergarten teacher at Manchester Elementary School, wrote in an email that she is glad the state made the decision to close, though she recognizes the hardship for everyone in the school system.

“Being closed for four more weeks will give the various authorities the opportunity to see if the virus is progressing or if the measures that have been put in placed has slowed the virus down. It will also give school personal time to learn how to do distance learning. As an older teacher who teaches kindergarten, a grade that is very hands on, I will need time to learn how to do distance learning," she said via email. "I think that it is important for parents to know that teachers ‘want’ to be in school. We love and miss the kids. We worry about their social and emotional well-being. We can fix the academic gaps when we return to school.

“What is important now is that we all work together to make our children feel safe and secure. The kids need to know that the grown-ups [have] got this and we miss them.”

She is working on planning for Google Classroom and is focused on activities that families can do together, on their own time as not to add any more stress to families. For March 25, Maryland Day, she asked students to research what Maryland’s state flower, dog and sport were, and to draw a picture.

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Henn said she most misses their laughter and fun in the classroom.

“I tell them all the time to talk to me, that it is my job to help them solve their problems. I miss helping them,” she said.

Eighth-grade social studies teacher Kelley McDonough of Mount Airy Middle School said Wednesday that it’s good to have more information.

“I am glad to finally have some sort of 'known’ with all of the unknowns because I didn’t think there was any chance we were going back on March 27th. At the same time, I really feel for everyone involved [the students, the parents, the school staff on every level],” McDonough said. “I know it was a difficult decision, but in the end, I do believe it is in the best interest of our community in the long run to try to keep as many people as healthy as possible.”

As she prepares for distance learning, she has also been taking Remote Professional Development offered by the Instructional Technology Department on Google Classroom.

“The major things I think everybody needs going forward are patience, flexibility, and technology resources,” she said. Those resources could include online lessons or curriculum, internet access, professional development on using the technology, or devices to utilize.

“Everyone from kids to parents to teachers is at a different place in their comfort level, in their knowledge, or in their access.”

Statewide plan

Across Maryland, questions of whether the state should suspend some graduation requirements for high school seniors, how to provide equity for disadvantaged students, and what can be put in place for students with disabilities loom large.

Salmon promised more information in the coming days on a statewide plan to maintain equitable standards and expectations for students.

The superintendents have provided plans to the state on how to continue education services throughout the closure period, Salmon said. The state is reviewing these plans to see what resources they can provide the school districts.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, told The Baltimore Sun that while teachers will do everything they can, “it will be important to understand that our students have lost learning.” She hopes the state will relax some of the graduation requirements for high school seniors.

On Tuesday, the state Board of Education voted to apply for a waiver for standardized testing normally federally required.

Nationwide, SAT college admissions test dates have been canceled throughout the spring and the College Board announced that AP testing will take place online rather than proctored in person.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this story.

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