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Baltimore-area school systems say to expect bumps as they switch to remote learning

Baltimore County schools have invested in laptops for students in recent years, something that may make it easier to get lessons to students after schools were closed in response to the coronavirus.
Baltimore County schools have invested in laptops for students in recent years, something that may make it easier to get lessons to students after schools were closed in response to the coronavirus. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

School — in its new incarnation — will be limited at first and districts are asking for patience from parents across the Baltimore region anxious to get their children back on schedule.

Most school system leaders say next week will be spent training teachers and resolving a raft of logistical issues, including the distribution of thousands of computers, and the first real assignments will begin April 6.

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And, they say, students and parents should be prepared for bumps along the way. The lessons aren’t likely to cover all aspects of the school day. Knowing that online teaching and paper packets aren’t going to be the same as face-to-face instruction, school system administrators are scaling back the curriculum, deciding what baseline skills students need to progress to their next grade. Art, music and some science and social studies may be less frequent or nonexistent.

“We are really working under a new paradigm," Baltimore schools chief Sonja Santelises said. “It is a challenge for our students and families. We are dramatically changing the way we deliver instruction in real time."

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What is put in place in the next two weeks is likely to evolve over time, Santelises said, particularly if school closures continue past April 24, the date to which the state extended the initial closure to encourage social distancing as the new coronavirus outbreak swept into the state.

School systems are trying to make sure the lessons are produced in different formats, both online and in paper packets that can be picked up or mailed home. Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties are including cell phones in their plans so that students who may not have a laptop can access lessons that way.

Educators say the lessons will be adapted to different devices and formats. Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties are likely to use television networks to broadcast lessons. Some teachers may decide to provide videos of lessons while some may call students.

School leaders are trying to help low income families quickly get hooked up to high speed internet by working with companies that provide it for free or at a low cost during this health crisis.

Even grading may change. Santelises and Baltimore County superintendent Darryl Williams said they are considering giving students a pass or fail for the fourth quarter, rather than letter grades.

Santelises said superintendents are deeply concerned about how students without access to technology or resources at home, or perhaps homeless, might be adversely affected through no fault of their own.

Williams said his district will spend the next week helping parents and staff understand expectations.

“We are entering into the fourth quarter so we are going to figure out what the objectives and standards are that kids really need to close out these weeks,” he said.

Another hurdle, he believes, is that students and teachers will just be missing each other.

“It is going to be a different way of teaching and learning. Folks who go into education, they like people and like to interact with people. I think it is going to be a real culture shift for all of us."

Baltimore County schools, unlike most districts in the area, have a laptop for every student from grade four through 12. Most middle and high schoolers already have those at home

Baltimore County has additional computers for younger elementary students at school and Williams said they are deciding how to distribute some of those. The district will provide some packets to students who need them. Baltimore County also has developed an extensive online platform that students, teachers and parents have been using for the past several years.

City students, however, don’t have the same access. With about 15,000 Chromebooks and 80,000 students, few students will be able to use a laptop from school. Santelises said they will be distributing them, giving priority to seniors, juniors and students with disabilities.

Williams and Santelises said they will rely on principals and teachers to reach out to their students in the coming days, and believe that some instruction is likely to happen in one-to-one phone calls with students.

Howard County has taken a different approach to remote learning, deciding to wait longer to put it in place for students. Remote learning won’t begin until April 14 for high schoolers, April 20 for middle schoolers and April 27 for elementary schoolers if the school closure continues past April 24.

In a strongly worded statement on its website, Superintendent Michael Martirano said the school system did not have enough technology to offer adequate instruction. The system has ordered 20,000 new Chromebooks that won’t be available until the middle of May.

“There are many who have contacted me to say that we should go ahead and put materials out and then worry about the students who may not have technology access or receive special education services," he said. “With one in four of our children living in poverty, requiring special education services or needing language supports, that is just not possible.”

In Anne Arundel County, teachers will be connecting with their students to have them complete third quarter work, which ends next week, as well as trying to assess the need for computers, said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the school system. The system has 45,000 laptops and about 85,000 students.

Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Steve Lockard said the work for families and schools to switch to distance learning is “a Herculean effort.”

“Digital learning wasn’t a priority in this community and we need to change that, I think. This circumstance has underscored how far behind we are.”


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Carroll schools plan to use digital tools like Google Classroom software that schools already had begun using in the 2019-20 school year. Offline, teachers will deploy workbooks and learning packets.

“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," Lockard said in an email to parents.

In Harford, the school system has a plan to distribute instructional materials to students for the next two weeks, but it is continuing to struggle with ensuring both teachers and students have adequate access to devices and the internet.

Because Harford’s school system hadn’t been investing in a one-to-one ratio of devices to students, Superintendent Sean Bulson said the county will have more difficulty delivering instruction.

“Digital learning wasn’t a priority in this community and we need to change that, I think," Bulson said. “This circumstance has underscored how far behind we are and [long-term] that’s something we really need to work on.”

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Santelises said she understands the struggles that parents may have to keep their children focused, on a schedule and engaged in learning while they are home. She is a parent trying to do the same thing, she said. If parents have to emphasize one thing, she said, make it reading, and then a little bit of math.

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“I think that it is an opportunity to explore your young people’s strength," she said. "Give yourself some grace, emphasize the basics, reach out if you need help.”

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Catalina Righter and S. Wayne Carter, Jr. contributed to this report.

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