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Howard County students and parents kick off first day of fall semester as virtual learning begins

For Jennifer Schwartz, so much of Tuesday was the same as the beginning of any other school year.

The Columbia resident woke up, got her 7-year-old daughter Cady ready for school and drove her there. Schwartz then dropped Cady off in front of a school building and was nervous about how her first day of second grade would go.

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However, that’s where the similarities end.

With Howard County schools and those across Maryland taking classes online, at least through January due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Cady won’t be learning in person or be with her friends from school. Instead of dropping Cady off at Atholton Elementary School, Schwartz said goodbye to her daughter outside of Clemens Crossing Elementary School, one of the Columbia Association’s locations for its child care program.

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No big hugs or kisses were given before Cady went inside — just a temperature check, mandatory mask-wearing and a tap on the shoulder.

“This is all very different,” said Schwartz, 46. “We just have to take it one day at a time. We’ll all have to get used to it. We’re going to give each other a lot of grace.”

Schwartz is one of many parents in Howard County and across the country who are trying to balance their own jobs and parental responsibilities with the virtual learning of their children.

As part of the virtual learning plan, Howard County Public School System students will participate in about three hours of live learning four days a week, with Wednesday as a day for asynchronous, or self-guided, assignments.

Brett Chrest has two kids who stepped into virtual, online education Tuesday morning. In his split-level Columbia home, each corner had someone being educated or someone educating. Through their county-issued Chromebook laptops, the Chrest children started their school year.

Chrest’s eldest son, Brooks, started fourth grade in the family’s living room. Brandon, the younger son, worked in the family’s third bedroom. Downstairs, Leah, Chrest’s wife, taught math to Wilde Lake High School students out of the family’s home office.

Chrest refers to himself as a nomad: “I go where I can best effectively work without distraction."

”It’s a little bit strange to have to have two streams of education going at the same time upstairs," he said.

Schwartz, who also has a fourth grader who will be learning from home or a neighbor’s house this fall, believes Cady needs to be in a more traditional environment to succeed academically.

“Cady really wanted to have interaction with other kids and to be in more of a school setting instead of being just at home,” Schwartz said. “It means a lot to her in terms of her excitement level and her eagerness to learn. Of course, there’s always some concern no matter when you’re sending your kid out of the house. I think we’re definitely weighing her happiness and keeping her eager about school with the potential risk.”

The Columbia Association’s child care program — as well as the county’s RecZone program — has increased safety measures, is limiting the amount of students to 26 per school and is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. All children and staff in the association’s program must wear masks when inside, and temperatures are being checked at the door.

“Our job and their job is to make sure we provide a healthy and safe social environment,” said Jennifer Harding, the Columbia Association’s child care program operations manager. “As a parent, it can be hard to work and give your child the attention they need with school. We’re hoping this gives parents a peace of mind so they can send them here and give them as much normalcy as possible in a safe and healthy way.”

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Each school site will be staffed by two workers who will help facilitate the students’ learning. The school system has requested they not help with specific instruction, Harding said. Instead, the staff members are there to help students get set up and online.

“We took a training [last week] so we can get kids up and running,” Harding said. “That’s our job. To get them online. We are staying away from the instructional portion. We aren’t teachers.”

The program, for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, is currently operating in three elementary schools across the county — Clemens Crossing, Northfield and Cradlerock — and has the permission to operate in 10 schools. The rate for full-time care in the 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. program is $215 a week. The association also offers half-day, daily and weekly enrollment at similar rates.

The Columbia Association’s program will run through the last day of the first semester, Jan. 28, which is when virtual school could end in Howard County.

The Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks’ RecZone program also began Tuesday. RecZone, which will also be offered five days a week at public schools across the county, also reduced its prices after appropriating money the county received from the CARES Act. RecZone’s 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. program is $185 a week and the 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. program is $219 per week.

Breakfast and lunch is being provided to students in the programs by the school system’s free meals program. The “Grab-and-Go” program was set to change back to only for students in the Free and Reduced Meals program once school began, but last week the Howard County school system announced that funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will allow the meals to remain free for all through the end of 2020.

“With everything on the plates of students and families this fall, food should not be something they have to worry about,” Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said. “I am grateful that we are able to continue the critical service of providing healthy and nutritious meals during this time without the constraints of having to determine which students must pay full or partial price and which students receive free meals.”

During the first semester, which ends Jan. 28, the meals program will operate from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Monday through Friday. Students can receive breakfast and lunch, and parents can pick them up at either time from any school in the county without their children needing to be present.

Schwartz said she’s thankful to have the Columbia Association’s program as an option for Cady. She said the spring was “very difficult.”

“My daughter is a very social person, and the spring was really hard on her. We didn’t want to repeat that,” Schwartz said. “Now, it feels a lot more like regular school. [The students] have daily interactions with their teachers. It’s going to be interesting to see how teachers manage these large groups in synchronous learning. That’s my only concern as they start.”

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Long Chen, a Columbia resident, said he’s glad school is online this fall. Chen, 40, has a daughter entering kindergarten in the school system and said he wouldn’t want to send her to in-person school right now.

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“I don’t think we’re ready [because of the pandemic],” he said.

In the spring, many Howard County parents weren’t happy with the lack of live learning time their children received — which was between one to three hours depending on the grade level. This semester, however, students will be receiving about three hours of live learning a day for four days a week, in addition to homework and self-guided learning.

“So far, I’m pretty impressed with what Howard County has done,” Chen said. “I didn’t have high expectations after what I heard about what happened in the spring. I’m impressed by the resources they have online. Her teachers and her school have been very responsive. I think it’ll take two to three weeks to get into a routine, but it’s been good so far.”

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