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How will remote learning be different for Carroll County schools? More face time, different schedules and more.

When all Maryland public school buildings were abruptly shut down in March, school districts were tasked with continuing to teach students, but in an online environment. When remote learning resumes next month, Carroll County school officials know there is room for improvement.

From students to parents to teachers all the way up to the board members and Superintendent Steve Lockard, the consensus seemed to be that the Carroll County Public Schools educational experience needs to be significantly different when students resume online learning Sept. 8. Officials have worked on ways to improve remote learning, and that has resulted in plans for more real-time instruction — even in person for some programs.

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CCPS staff spoke at the most recent school board meeting, laying out the changes and enhancements expected, as well as what “small groups” will have the opportunity to receive limited in-person instruction. They focused on the way the online school day will be structured more like an in-person school day, with regimentation and far more time spent learning “live” from their teachers at the same time as their classmates.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is make sure that face-to-face collaboration between teachers and students is the primary difference in the way we’re doing virtual this year, so that the teacher engages with the student,” Tom Hill, CCPS director of middle schools, said at the Aug. 12 meeting. “I want the teacher to be available ... to do exactly what we would do in the classroom.”

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The board unanimously voted to require that at least 50% of learning during the school day, at all levels, be “synchronous learning,” which staff defined as “a group of students engaging in learning at the same time.”

Lockard acknowledged that students need to see more of their teachers, noting, “We’ve gotten a lot of community feedback around that,” but cautioned that it’s not healthy for students to be staring into a screen for seven hours a day without appropriate breaks, chances to move around and opportunities for independent learning.

Results of a survey released at the June 24 school board meeting showed that 18% of parents wanted to go back to all virtual learning, and in a survey of students, 6% said they would be very comfortable with all-virtual learning, while 28.6% said they would be very uncomfortable.

Lockard and his staff also unveiled to the board some sample schedules, which can be found on the CCPS website, for elementary, middle and high school students.

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“Sample means sample,” he said. “Every school and every classroom is going to be driven by the kids and what their needs are."

Board member Patricia Dorsey said, “It’s good to know that this is a sample and that teachers have the ability to make it work, just like they have in the past.”

Jason Anderson, the school system’s chief of academics, equity and performance, said the plan is to emulate the school day as much as possible and then to be able to adapt to what is working well and away from what isn’t. He noted that balance needs to be found along the continuum as some push for more synchronous learning and others for more freedom during the day.

“It’s really going to come down to the actual teachers, as well as the schools, as to what works,” he said. “And, most importantly, we’re going to hear from parents."

Individual schedules have already been created for students, and families should now have online access to those schedules. But the sample schedules provide insight into the type of day students can expect.

For elementary school, students will typically begin their day with 45 minutes of humanities instruction, followed by 15 minutes of independent humanities work. Then, students would have an hour of synchronous support time, followed by 30 minutes of art, music, media, health or physical education — half synchronous instruction and half independent. After lunch, students would see 45 minutes of STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — instruction, followed by 15 minutes of independent STEM work. The school day would end with another hour of synchronous support time.

For middle school students, after a 10-minute homeroom, the day starts with four 45-minute periods that are broken down as 25 minutes of synchronous instruction and 20 minutes of guided or independent work. After lunch, there are two more periods similar to the first four, followed by 30 minutes of synchronous student support time to end the day.

For high school students, the days are broken down into four mods, each consisting of 40 minutes of synchronous learning and 45 minutes of guided or independent work with lunch coming between the third and fourth mods, and the day ending with 40 minutes that can be used in various ways, including advisory topics.

The schedules are designed to bring a structure that was lacking this past spring in the first incarnation of online learning. Accommodations will be made for students who can’t be online at the times specified because of technology, family or other issues, and board member Tara Battaglia said she wanted to make it clear to the public that those students who are unable to be online at the prescribed times will not be penalized.

But the goal is for students to go through an online school day much as they would an in-person school day.

“We want kids in school, participating all day,” said Eric King, CCPS director of high schools.

The schedules for the day and each class period have set times to start and end. For example, the high school day begins at 7:30 a.m.

“I love this ... it’s like going to school,” board member Marsha Herbert said. “I love the structure.”

‘There will be challenges’

Surveys have been sent to all families in an effort to see which students need laptops or help with accessing broadband internet. The school system is also looking into having satellite sites where students could come into a CCPS building to work and utilize high-speed internet.

According to the CCPS reopening plan document, the combination of virtual and/or independent work expected of elementary school students each day is expected to be 2 1/2 hours, middle school students 4 hours and high school students 5 1/2 hours.

Several board members, as well as county Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, expressed concern about the kids who are in child care or who will be home by themselves with technology issues, as well as kids who might be struggling in school anyway.

“When school does start we are going to be on the lookout for that,” Chief of Schools Cynthia McCabe said. “Students that aren’t tuning in during that synchronous time or students that are struggling and aren’t turning in assignments, we’re going to get right on that and make sure we do whatever we need to do to support that family and that student. We do know that there will be challenges.”

In-person options for some

There are also sample schedules for special education students listed, but those schedules will be even more individually tailored to students. In fact, while the vast majority of CCPS students will spend the first quarter completely online, some will have in-person learning in small groups.

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Nick Shockney, director of special education, said CCPS is looking into bringing in students from the school system’s autism, Behavioral Education Support Team, Learning For Independence and early intervention programs as well as students from Carroll Springs School and postsecondary programs. He said those are composed of some 475 students, and they’ve reached out to families regarding in-person learning.

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Also set for an early return to school are students who attend the Carroll County Career and Technology Center. Bill Eckles, supervisor of career and technical education, said the plan is to bring those students back in waves.

“Students are looking forward to getting back to class and doing some hands-on work,” he said. “What seemed to make the most sense was to have the returning students, those in level 2 of their program, who are seniors, be the ones who come back and return to school in-person first ... in the programs which are very shop heavy.”

The first-phase students would be those working in construction, transportation, cosmetology and the culinary arts. They would return virtually for a week and then go back to the school for three weeks. Then, if things go well, the Tech Center would move to a second phase, consisting of those who are new and those who are in programs that are less shop-intense, such as engineering. The third phase would be the more computer-centric programs. Anderson said the first phase includes 248 students, the second 332 and the third 78.

“I’m so glad to hear this,” Herbert said. “They just missed out so much in the spring. You can’t take blood pressure on a baby doll.”

‘A much different learning experience’

Early November is likely the soonest most students would return to a classroom. As part of voting at the July 29 Board of Education meeting to open in a full virtual model, the board decided that the reopening decision would be revisited no later than at its Oct. 14 meeting. A potential hybrid method, part online, part in-person, is also detailed on the CCPS website.

Educators should now be better equipped to handle online teaching, CCPS staff said. Board President Donna Sivigny noted that teachers were required to complete seven hours of professional development over the summer; Anderson said many have gone well above that.

“Our teachers are very excited, they want to be prepared,” Anderson said. “As of Sept. 8, I feel like our community is going to see a much different learning experience than what we ended school year with.”

Board member Kenneth Kiler said that Carroll County reacted quicker and “probably did it better” in the spring than almost any jurisdiction in the state, but he acknowledged the negative reactions many had.

“Did we get the results we wanted the kids to have? Probably not,” he said. “We’ve got a much a better chance of getting it now.”

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