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Our View: Flexibility key for school system, realistic expectations key for parents, as distance learning begins

There is no precedent for what public school systems across Maryland, and across the entire country, are trying to do in reaction to schools being closed as part of the many measures being taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Systems are tasked with changing from in-person classroom learning to distance, mostly online, learning. In the span of a few weeks. Without compromising students’ opportunities for learning.

Distance learning started Monday and will continue through April 24 at least — and, potentially, for the rest of the school year, depending on the status of the pandemic, This is, at this point, a work in progress. There are many unanswered questions and the most important ones — What will happen with standardized tests? How will students be graded? Will the school year be extended? — must be answered by the State Department of Education.

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Based on Wednesday’s livestreamed Board of Education meeting, conversations we’ve had with teachers and administrators and feedback from parents we’ve received or seen on social media, Carroll County Public Schools seems to be off to a solid start in terms of making classwork and technology available and in recognizing that this can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution.

Carroll County families ran the gamut in terms of socioeconomics long before the coronavirus began, meaning that even in the best of times certain families would have far more access to technology options than others. And at present, with many parents forced to work from home or facing unexpected unemployment, it is far from the best of times.

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Chief of Schools Cindy McCabe said organizationally CCPS understand the need to have to a “very flexible view of what this can look like.” That means not giving all parents the same formula for what their child needs to do and when. It’s unrealistic, for example, to expect that students can be seated in front of a laptop for a virtual class when siblings might need the laptop for their class at that time or parents might need the laptop all day for work.

One way some teachers are going about it is to give out many assignments at the beginning of a week give students the entire week to complete them. That way, if students can access the family computer only sparingly, it won’t be held against them. It will be particularly difficult to serve special education students from a distance.

Parents need to have realistic expectations and they need to keep in mind that, as McCabe said Wednesday, everyone is in the same boat. It’s not as if it’s business as usual in school districts elsewhere in America.

“Let’s not fool ourselves in this being just like classroom instruction, it’s not going to be,” Superintendent Steve Lockard said during Wednesday’s meeting, noting that he would much rather have face-to-face instruction. “These are unbelievable times so we have to be flexible.”

Online instruction began Monday and more than 1,600 Google Classrooms had already been set up. Laptops are being distributed to those families who don’t have one. CCPS has given guidance on ways to access broadband for those who don’t have reliable internet. Teachers have “office hours” in which they can communicate with students in various ways. And hard copies of instructional packets and workbooks that follow Common Core curriculum standards for the main subject areas are being sent out.

Obviously, there will be issues along the way and online learning on April 24 — or, perhaps, in June — will likely look a bit different from this week. We’re guessing Carroll County would’ve been better suited to handle this pandemic from an educational and technology standpoint had it occurred in, say, 2022 rather than 2020, given that Lockard began making online learning a priority from the time he took over as superintendent in 2018 and given that the county commissioners are making getting broadband to the county’s rural areas a priority.

But there’s never a good time for a crisis. No person, no business, no organization, no governing body was adequately prepared for this one. In terms of distance learning, it won’t be easy, it won’t be perfect and it won’t be 100% fair for all. But every student will have opportunities to continue to learn. For now, that’s about all anyone should realistically expect.

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