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‘I just don’t want my kids to give up’: Virtual learning puts extra pressure on Howard County families

Howard County Public School System Superintendent Michael Martirano knows the downsides of the virtual learning model that the school system will implement for the first semester of the coming academic year.

Aside from the most obvious downside — that children learn better in school buildings than in a remote model — there are other challenges facing vulnerable students and families with the virtual plan.

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Between working families and single-parent households that have to balance child care and their child’s learning, to parents with special education students and students who are still learning English, the virtual learning model caused by the coronavirus pandemic could be devastating, some say.

“These are the things that keep me up late at night,” Martirano said. “We have close to 60,000 students. We had challenges in the normalized school setting, but those challenges have been exasperated several times forward in a virtual environment. I’m very concerned.”

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Shannon Wright knows these challenges firsthand.

Wright, 33, is a single mother of seven children, five of whom are students in the Howard County school system and two toddlers. Their living space isn’t big enough to have five students doing live instruction at the same time, with multiple kids in the same room and one of her sons choosing to go into the bathroom to have his own space.

With the school year less than a month away, Wright has no idea how her family is going to make it during the distance learning model.

“It’s hell. The spring was hell,” Wright said. “With five kids, trying to understand all the instructions for all five of them, it’s chaos.”

Wright has two children at Wilde Lake Middle School and three more at Wilde Lake High. Three of her children have learning disabilities and are assigned Individualized Education Programs. Wright, who had her first child at 15 and dropped out of high school after the 10th grade, said her top concern is that she hopes her children don’t fall behind.

“With my education level and times changing so much, it’s hard for me helping them with homework,” Wright said. “It’s also hard for me to find time to just wind down and spend time with each kid. With three of my children having learning disabilities, it doesn’t leave me room with the other two who don’t. And now they all have to be in class at the same time. I just don’t want my kids to give up. This virtual learning could lead to some kids giving up.”

Kristi Martin-Smith, a childhood development expert with 30 years of experience in the education field, said virtual learning adds additional burdens to parents and children.

“The onus of the application of the digital instruction now moves to the parent,” said Martin-Smith, who is the director of education at Children’s Lighthouse, an education-focused day care that has more than 50 centers across the country and one that is expected to open in Howard County. “This is creating a whole new burden on working parents. I have an employee who works for me who is a single mom of three children. For her to carry out the virtual learning this past spring was next to impossible.”

When the Howard school system started its virtual learning model in April after schools shut down in March due to the pandemic, the biggest challenge was technology. With less than 20,000 school-distributed laptops in a district of nearly 60,000 students, it was difficult to quickly and effectively implement a learning model, Martirano said.

That problem, he said, has been addressed this summer, as the district has spent millions on laptops and recently announced it was using the money it received from the federal CARES Act to pay for enough devices for every student to have one.

“If you can’t get over those hurdles, every other hurdle becomes moot because you can’t even engage with the students,” Martirano said.

Wright said all five of her school-age children received laptops in the spring. Without them, she said, her children wouldn’t have a way to log in.

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“If we didn’t have the devices they handed out for free, we’d be in a horrific place,” Wright said. “I don’t have the money to buy devices for all five of them.”

Martin-Smith said virtual learning is especially difficult for elementary schoolers and students with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

In the reopening plan that was approved by the Howard County Board of Education last week, students at all levels are scheduled for three hours of live virtual instruction a day, four days a week.

“For those students, they may need help logging in, getting into the Zoom classes and staying attentive to the programming,” said Martin-Smith, who lives in Texas. “When you understand how a young child’s brain works and how they learn, expecting them to be able to engage in virtual learning without someone there to facilitate will be a challenge.”

At the last school board meeting, some members raised questions about whether the live instruction could be recorded to give families more flexibility.

Privacy concerns make doing this difficult, Martirano said, as every parent in every class would have to sign off on the recording. In addition, it would also have to be negotiated with the teachers union.

“These sound wonderful, but there are other protections we have to think of,” Martirano said.

With a little less than a month until the academic year begins, Martirano said the school system is still working through how to work with special needs students and students with Individualized Education Programs.

“We are still working through all that. We’re always looking at all the supports we can provide,” he said. “In a normal classroom setting, we have concerns; we have achievement gaps. In many ways, during the virtual environment those issues are exacerbated. If a child is falling behind in a normal environment, there’s more of a concern that they may fall behind in a virtual environment.”

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