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Smart people in Baltimore have good ideas for remote learning; schools should listen up | COMMENTARY

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon stressed flexibility for school systems in the fall during a press conference on July 22, 2020.
Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon stressed flexibility for school systems in the fall during a press conference on July 22, 2020. (Colin Campbell/Baltimore Sun)

As coronavirus cases climb and more public school systems in Maryland announce plans for remote learning in the fall, the question now shifts from whether students should engage in remote learning, to what it should look like.

Everyone’s agreed it has to be better than the mishmash of emergency efforts we saw across districts in the spring. And we all know it’s never going to be as good as in-person instruction and that it will undoubtedly leave a lot of kids behind. That’s the grim reality of schooling amid a pandemic. Thousands of children across the state don’t have reliable access to the internet or devices, or caregivers available to support them during the day. Some are learning English as a second language, and others simply don’t learn well from interfacing with a screen. And many have disabilities and special needs that make remote learning impractical, yet they’re still guaranteed a free, appropriate public education under federal law. What about them?

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Such civil rights concerns are among the myriad issues school systems are grappling with. It’s obvious that no single plan is going to serve everyone and that districts are going to have to prioritize bringing the most vulnerable students back into the classroom as soon — and as safely — as possible. That’s the hope in Baltimore City, where officials have given themselves a mid-October deadline to determine if they can begin serving small groups of at-risk or very young kids in person with willing teachers and administrators.

But in the meantime, they and other districts have to get their virtual houses in order. Remote learning, for school systems engaging in it, is going to be the backbone of education for the majority of kids for the foreseeable future; it will also be the fallback plan in the event of virus outbreaks after the eventual return to brick and mortar classrooms. Once it’s in place, districts will have an easier time of focusing on phasing in in-person education.

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Understandably, K-12 schools do not excel in this area. Their whole model is about socialization and cooperation and hands-on learning for a variety of reasons, many of which were outlined last month by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In addition to academic instruction, in-person schools provide students “social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits,” the group wrote in a clinical Guidance for School Re-entry document urging a safe return to class as soon as feasible.

Still, online learning doesn’t have to be abysmal. There are steps systems can take to make it functional and even fun for many kids. Luckily, there are some very smart people in the state looking at these very issues, many of them right here in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University. Yet no one seems to be reaching out to some of those best situated to help. That’s a wasted opportunity. We talked with two Ph.D. professors who don’t claim to have all the answers by any means, but they do have a lot of good ideas worth considering. (Note to school CEOs: You should give them a call.)

Amy Shelton is a professor and associate dean for research in the Johns Hopkins School of Education with a focus on the science of learning. She’s also director of research for Hopkin’s Center for Talented Youth and, for the past 18 months, its interim executive director. CTY runs an enormous online program for thousands of talented kids throughout the country, but for our purposes, we’re most interested in the summer version of the CTY “Emerging Scholars” initiative it runs in Baltimore for qualified elementary age children who come from eligible schools, which have large populations of low-income kids.

When COVID-19 hit, that entire program had to be rethought and reconfigured for remote learning for young kids — rising first through third graders. Access was a big issue. Organizers had a set of Chromebooks they could hand out, but not enough, so they sought donations through a device drive. “You’d be amazed how many families had extra devices lying around,” Dr. Shelton said. They also went directly to Comcast, which provided free internet after some discussion.

Baltimore City Public Schools, which like most urban areas has a high concentration of kids from low-income families, has 35,000 devices on order and has added 10,000 Wi-Fi hot spots throughout the city, yet it still expects access to be an issue. Perhaps now is a good time for those of you reading to take stock of “extra devices” that could be donated, and for Comcast to step up again, extending the 60-day window of free internet service in 2020 it’s now offering to new “Essentials” customers beyond the two-month limit and into 2021 for those who have kids in public schools. The goodwill would be worth it.

Once access was accounted for, the next issue for the scholars program was helping its teachers determine how to structure lessons in such a way that they best mimicked in-person learning and a regular day. Some of them were devoted to “synchronous,” real-time interactions, which might just be an hour to go over things in the morning or kids playing an online game together, while other lessons that didn’t require give and take were recorded for kids to watch when convenient, and still other work was meant to be done offline, after instruction was given.

“The key elements would be training and working with teachers and saying, ‘OK, which parts do you have to be the talking head or facilitator of conversation, and which of these things, in a low-tech kind of way, can you put in another space,” Dr. Shelton said.

Recordings don’t have to be polished, beautiful videos — or even long — and teachers don’t have to be online class experts. The goal is to recreate a classroom experience in the best way they can, using the tools available. Sometimes that might mean putting together materials packets for families to pick up in a safe manner to use at home, or directing kids to examine local flora and fauna on a family walk and write about it.

James Diamond, an assistant professor and the faculty lead in the Program in Digital Age Learning and Educational Technology within Johns Hopkins University School of Education, essentially gave his graduate students, most of them K-12 teachers, a crash course in this kind of thinking once coronavirus came calling.

“Their lives were just completely turned upside down,” he said. Good thing his specialty is teaching teachers how to incorporate technology into classrooms.

The first step is getting educators familiar with an online learning platform, and recognizing that comfort levels will be varied. Then you work with them to figure out the day. Older kids can likely handle longer lectures online throughout the day. Younger kids probably can’t; they’ll need smaller bites and more free exploration. Interactive is generally better than non-interactive, and there are already lots of resources teachers can turn to online.

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“Yes there should be some reading, yes there should be some viewing, but if those resources can include games and simulations — safe sites in which [students] are engaging with their classmates collaboratively,” the better the chance of keeping kids engaged, said Dr. Diamond.

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When teachers use existing resources or pre-recorded lessons, that frees them up for small group interactions online or even over the phone to address specific student needs that you can’t manage in a Zoom-style meeting of 30 kids.

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Communication is key to making any of it work — with parents, among students, with teacher colleagues. How well teachers and administrators communicate will determine how well they form community bonds in the online learning space. Several of Dr. Diamond’s teacher-students are already engaged in online meetings with children they’re set to teach in the fall, getting to know them and their families individually before they jump into a lesson plan in September.

“It makes a lot of sense, and I think it’s a good way to manage expectations on both ends,” Dr. Diamond said.

Managing expectations is likely to be a theme for the next academic year. Training has barely begun in some areas, and parents have a way of expecting perfection. We guarantee they’re not going to get it. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get something good enough — for now.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, writer Peter Jensen and summer intern Anjali DasSarma — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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