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Our View: If we end up with distance learning again, the 2.0 version needs to be a major upgrade l COMMENTARY

The Anne Arundel County school system on Monday became the latest to announce there will be no in-person learning through the end of calendar year 2020, joining Howard and Harford counties and other districts that have opted to go with 100% distance learning this fall amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

Carroll County Public Schools has yet to announce what will be done here, revealing three plans last week: A traditional, in-person opening, a hybrid that would have kids in school two days a week (learning online the remainder of the week), and distance learning.

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The in-person option is probably the least likely to happen given that schools can open at full capacity only if the state moves forward to Phase III of Maryland’s reopening plan. The hybrid plan is intriguing, but there are a lot of moving parts, it would be difficult on parents with childcare needs and it would require buy-in from teachers. To this point, teachers’ unions have come out against returning in the fall out of safety concerns.

That brings us back to where we left off last school year — distance learning.

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Except that we can’t go back to where we left off last school year.

That is not a criticism. It was an untenable situation. The school system did its best to get laptops to those who needed them and to get teachers up to speed on a form of online education. Along with hard copies of work packets and books mailed to students, that at least gave kids a chance to learn something.

But it in no way resembled school. No grades. Little classroom-style education. Almost no interaction.

It sounds as if there will be a return to students receiving grades in 2020-21. That is critical. The pass/incomplete model used in the spring did not provide much incentive or motivation for students to even complete assignments, let alone to excel. As board member Patricia Dorsey pointed out at the last meeting, students have to be held accountable.

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The other element missing was teachers doing what they do best. Teaching. That is, going over material with students, explaining it to them, trying to make it interesting, showing why it is relevant, and answering questions.

We’re hoping that can be accomplished with many more live and interactive classes. The entire country — including teachers and kids — has become not just familiar with but adept at Zoom and various other videoconferencing services. That should be an essential part of distance learning in combination with the online tools and programs that were utilized last year.

Wouldn’t it be great if students could be kept on a regimented schedule so that their first period math class goes on during the time allotted for first period, with the teacher in front of the class implementing the lesson plan and responding to questions from the assembled students? Same for second period English? And third period science?

No, not every student will be able to attend virtual classes that way due to family situations. That’s unfortunate. But many will and they should have that option. And every class should be recorded so that the others can catch up when they are able.

The school system must do everything possible to equip students with the technology they need and apparently will be doing so, investing in mobile hot spots to provide to families and, we would hope, laptops for all students who need them.

Obviously, it won’t be ideal. Many special education students, in particular, are negatively affected by distance learning. Lower-income students, too. All the more reason to get back to in-person learning the moment it is deemed safe enough to do so.

But if, indeed, we are headed for another quarter or semester of distance learning, we trust the school system will be ready with “Distance Learning 2.0,” a major upgrade and a much-improved version of the initial rollout.

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