Kenneth Childs' classroom this semester looks different from his old one at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School in Northeast Baltimore.
The teacher’s online social studies courses took place this week inside many rooms — a kitchen decked out with red pots and pans, a dimly lit bedroom with a bunk bed, an enclosed porch. In one case, there were no walls at all, but a computer-generated sunset over a suspension bridge.
About 65 students punched in the password to enter Childs' online classroom Wednesday. He knew he had to bring the energy to hold students' attention inside their own homes.
One student wrapped herself in a rainbow blanket. Another boy’s large headphones were placed atop his hoodie. Childs gently asked an eighth-grader to sit up instead of lounging across the carpeted floor of a living room.
The previous day, his lesson had touched on the film “Black Panther” to explore Black representation in media.
“Has anyone since yesterday’s class developed some opinions?” Childs asked. A few yellow, cartoon hands flashed across the screen.
Similar scenes played out this week across the Baltimore region, where most school systems have opted to hold exclusively online classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many school districts reported scattered problems and trial-and-error solutions to technology issues. But Baltimore-area districts avoided the catastrophic failures seen elsewhere, such as the ransomware attack in Hartford, Connecticut, and Miami’s online platform crashing.
Baltimore City public school officials estimate that 80% of students logged on for live instruction Tuesday, followed by roughly 83% on Wednesday and 82% on Thursday. Attendance data for Friday was not immediately available.
Those estimates could fluctuate as the data is finalized next week, officials said.
The figures appear to show improvement over the spring, when city school leaders said about 75% of students were able to connect to online lessons in March and April. They also indicate that likely thousands of students across the city did not attend school this week, although the reasons were not immediately clear.
A lack of reliable internet connection, a myriad of technical difficulties and widespread device shortages have hampered some school systems' plans to hold live online classes this fall.
Joe Kane, chair of Baltimore schools' Parent and Community Advisory Board, said families reported a “sticky start” this week caused by internet connectivity issues. Some of the stumbles have since been addressed, he said.
“It’s easy to be critical of anyone at this time, but I think the district has done a fairly good job of balancing this rollout," Kane said. "But a fairly good job isn’t good enough when you’re talking about our kids.”
In Baltimore County, some students reported forgotten passwords. The school system also boosted the broadband capacity for its Google Meet after some students had trouble logging into online classes, spokesman Brandon Oland said in an email.
“[The teachers] sent emails to the parents, not just to my kids, which has been helpful because I don’t always know how to navigate the system like the kids do in their profiles."
Jennifer Grant, who has three children in Harford County schools
Share quote & link
The school system estimates 92% of students attended online classes this week, Oland said.
In Anne Arundel County Public Schools, one of the most common technical issues for both students and staff was forgetting passwords, said school spokesperson Bob Mosier.
County educators focused on fostering relationships during the first week. To do so, some teachers, like Bonita Bradway memorized the names of her Monarch Global Academy students in advance, she said.
Anne Arundel parents also balanced working from home and helping their children with school. For those who could not stay home, organizations like the Y of Central Maryland opened up learning support centers in schools so students could be dropped off and still receive support from staff.
In Howard County public schools, teachers and students faced minor technology and internet connectivity issues, but attendance on the first day was approximately 95%, officials said.
The school system is considering how to add in-person instruction for students who need it most. During a Howard County Board of Education meeting Thursday, several members emphasized a need to record live instruction for families.
Out of some 25,400 Carroll County Public Schools students, nearly 10,000 were issued laptops and close to 500 were given hot spots in an effort to help make online learning available to all in the more rural county.
Gary Davis, chief operating officer for Carroll County schools, said about 20 students had no access to the internet this week, even after receiving a hotspot.
“We’re really trying to do our best for people, and we just realize it’s a very challenging situation,” Davis said. “We’re just not equipped; we weren’t designed to do this.”
Still, some administrators said improvement in online learning was noticeable over last spring. Superintendent Steve Lockard and members of the Carroll Board of Education said Wednesday night they were hearing good reports from parents and teachers.
However, learning at a distance isn’t effortless for every student. Karen Sparks said it continues to be difficult for her son, Brice Reprogel, who is in second grade at Mechanicsville Elementary and has combined ADHD and ADD.
The Evening Sun Newsletter
Get your evening news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.
“In the elementary world, it’s such a challenge," Sparks said. "I just feel, as a parent, I don’t want to fail him. I feel like my participation is so critical in his success, and it’s scary, quite honestly.”
Jennifer Grant has three children in Harford County Public Schools — a sixth- and eighth-grader at Havre de Grace Middle and a third-grader at Meadowvale Elementary. The family knew there would be difficulties this week, so the children weren’t particularly stressed when problems arose, Grant said.
“The teachers have been phenomenal," Grant said. “They’ve sent emails to the parents, not just to my kids, which has been helpful because I don’t always know how to navigate the system like the kids do in their profiles."
Grant said nothing is going to be perfect this fall semester, but she’d rather know that her kids and her husband, a teacher, are at home and protected from the spread of COVID-19.
“I’ll deal with the technical problems any day over the stress of worrying someone is going to get sick and have to go to the hospital,” Grant said.