As schools gear up for the first online start, Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent George Arlotto said school communities are excited to get back to school despite the challenges.
Throughout the pandemic, the school system had worked to get Chromebooks to children and increase connectivity. So far, the school system has acquired 55,000 Chromebooks, with 32,000 more ordered.
The week before school starts, families have also gone to schools to pick up the pre-kindergarten through 5th-grade backpack of supplies offered by the school system, he said.
“We’re virtual, and obviously, it’s new for all of us — it’s new for our staff, our students, our parents and the community, but we’re really excited to get the school year started,” Arlotto said.
In an interview with The Capital, the superintendent went over how the school communities have prepared for the online semester of the 2020 to 2021 school year and what the online start looks like compared to his 30 years of working in education.
“It’s going to be completely different because I’m normally (in schools) for the first two weeks of the school year. I am rarely in this office before four or five o’clock in the afternoon,” Arlotto said from his office.
In replacement of his in-person visits to schools, Arlotto said he would have to ask teachers for permission to shadow the Google classrooms while also working with his regional assistant superintendents to check in on schools.
“I’ll go into the virtual classroom and sit and listen to the conversations and sit and listen to the relationship building that will be going on during the first week of school,” he said.
What to expect
This summer, teachers and staff have logged in an accumulation of over 130,000 professional development hours dedicated to online learning.
By the end of the summer, the system filled over 560 school positions, 24% of which are “diverse” – the largest percentage since the system began tracking over 10 years ago, said school spokesperson Bob Mosier.
As students log on, the first crucial piece is creating relationships and so teachers have received an online educator toolkit, said Arlotto.
In part, the toolkit offers teachers information and resources on how to build relationships with students in an online environment. Arlotto explained that this process had gone on since March when schools first shut down to help slow the coronavirus spread.
In combination with professional development, the school system has worked to offer better online instruction.
“In that process, they are learning about building relationships and navigating the online environment with their students,” he said.
For teachers, the first week back really means connecting with students.
Maria Cote, a Spanish teacher at Annapolis Middle School, said she would spend the first couple of days getting to know her students because that is the best way to get them to learn.
“The students have to think that the teacher cares about them before they care about learning,” Cote said, referencing a quote she once heard.
“In order to give the kids a safe environment, they have to feel a connection to the teacher, so they’re willing to learn.”
The school system will also work to assess students and where they are within the first weeks of school. The system bought a diagnostic assessment software called iReady for elementary schoolers to determine students’ academic levels.
At the middle and high school levels, assessments will vary based on the content area or course, but the diagnostic evaluations can be done in collaboration with the central office administration and teachers.
The school system will return to taking attendance, Arlotto said. Elementary schools will track attendance in the morning. For secondary students, attendance will be taken class by class, similar to what would happen if students were back in school buildings, he said.
The Evening Sun
But because of the unique circumstances for some children who cannot log on because of internet connection issues or lack of a device, schools are working with families. As a solution, the school system is creating an alternative attendance process, Arlotto said.
“We realize that not every student is going to be in exactly the same place or family, and so, we are giving sort of lots of space for the teachers when they take attendance,” he said.
For example, if a student cannot check-in at the start of class but can log on or contact the teacher, the teacher then can go back and correct the attendance, Arlotto said.
The student code of conduct will also still apply to the online environment. Students who misbehave can still be subject to disciplinary actions like suspension. Though online learning proves to be a new environment for schools, dealing with disciplinary behavior is not, said Arlotto.
In the spring, principals and central office administration had to respond to disciplinary issues, but the overall process is an evolving one, he said.
“The expectations remain the same in terms of their positive interaction with their peers and their teachers or adults, and so we will enforce the student code of conduct as best we can,” Arlotto said, adding that students could be excluded from online classes.
But in general, teachers can take students “out of class” online by holding a separate Google meet or call on Google voice to address what is going on and bring in additional help from counselors to principals.