For some parents, it’s the latest disappointment in pandemic-era learning: more virtual learning, no teacher in the room.
“Kids are going to be doing the same thing that doesn’t work, only in a new location,” said Jenna Hamilton, a mother of two school-age children in Fairfax County Public Schools. “They’re being warehoused in a room to watch their teacher on a screen yet again, with effectively a babysitter sitting there.”
School officials across the region say the strategy is necessary to reopen in the near future, while accommodating legitimate requests from teachers who must continue working virtually for health reasons — for example, those who qualify for virtual work under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Adding to the need are requirements for social distancing, which can spread students over more classrooms, and the demands of teaching both virtually and in person.
On Friday, a parent-led organization in Maryland took its frustrations to Gov. Larry Hogan (R). In a two-page letter that was also addressed to State Superintendent Karen B. Salmon, the organization Together Again MCPS asked state officials to insert clear definitions of “in-person learning” and “in-person instruction” into Maryland’s reopening guidance.
“Staring at a Chromebook while your teacher teaches on a screen is not in-person instruction, and it is frankly unacceptable,” the group wrote in the letter. “It is clear [the school system] does not want to embrace a true return to schools.”
Fairfax County school officials on Friday said classroom monitors will be called in only to help ADA-eligible teachers. Many will perform basic tasks such as overseeing lunchtime, taking attendance or operating technology, including cameras.
But plans vary throughout the D.C. area, and much remains unclear about how classroom monitors are being used. The position’s requirements are minimal: a high school degree and a background check. At least some of the slots are paid for through Cares Act funding.
In Montgomery County, parents noticed advertisements for classroom monitors around the same time some received letters from principals describing a classroom model for in-person school that included an adult or staff member supporting students doing online learning.
“To me, it sounds like glorified babysitting,” said Beatrice Hoppe, a Montgomery County mother of two. “And not what we believed would be happening.”
Hoppe, who lives in Silver Spring, said she loves the principal and teachers at her children’s school, William Tyler Page Elementary, but that sending her children to learn via Zoom inside a school building, rather than just keep Zooming inside her home, is not worth it.
“It’s a bare-minimum solution and it’s not in line with the live, in-person instruction Governor Hogan demanded,” she said.
With some schools in Maryland slow to reopen, Hogan directed all 24 school systems to begin making good-faith efforts to start in-person classes no later than March 1, threatening to explore “every legal avenue at our disposal” for those who did not.
Shortly afterward, Montgomery County, the state’s largest school district, detailed a plan to bring back small groups of students in some special education and career programs on March 1 and begin phasing in in-person learning March 15.
Elizabeth Haile, a Montgomery mother of two, said the instructional approach involved — called a “support” model — is “just crushing” to think of after a seemingly endless period of remote learning.
“It’s mind-boggling that this has been going on a year and this is what they have come up with,” she said.
Montgomery County is hiring 700 to 800 classroom monitors, officials said. A job listing says candidates must possess a high school diploma or GED, for work between March 15 and June 16, with a pay rate of $15.72 an hour and no benefits.
Some parents argue the underlying issue is that many teachers do not want to return to classrooms. Vaccinations are moving slowly in Montgomery.
“Teachers can’t come back but the low-wage workers can?” asked Betty Ball, who lives in North Potomac. “What support can [classroom monitors] possibly give with no experience?”
Some elected officials in the Washington region predict an impending clash, as more parents worry about a lack of teacher-led classrooms.
“Parents don’t want to trade virtual learning at home for virtual learning at school,” said Patricia O’Neill, a school board member in Montgomery County. “I think there’s a firestorm coming.”
School system officials in Montgomery said the complexities of in-person schooling — with social distancing, limited building space and varying numbers of students and staff returning — mean it will not look the same as before the pandemic.
The principals’ letters that stirred parents’ fears only captured part of the picture, said Derek Turner, chief of engagement, innovation and operations for Montgomery County Public Schools. “This is all evolving,” he said.
Student experiences will not be limited to online learning, he said. At the same time, some teachers may have students in more than one in-person classroom because of distancing requirements — while also having remote students.
“A child will get some form of direct instruction from a teacher every day, whether it’s their teacher or not,” he said, adding that another educator may be in the classroom from time to time.
Christopher Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, said teachers are expecting to “continue to work with the kids they know in a real-life setting.”
Still, he said, the challenge of in-person learning remains: “How do you have direct instruction for children, and also have instruction virtually?”
In other parts of the Washington region, school officials, many of them scrambling to identify and hire classroom monitors as the return to school rapidly approaches, say they are not yet fully sure how the logistics of the program will work.
Nonetheless, administrators are touting the possible benefits. Dean Brooks, recruitment administrator for Fairfax County Public Schools, hailed the rollout of classroom monitor positions as a way to boost employment, given the ongoing pandemic-driven devastation of the U.S. job market.
“It’s an excellent position, and an opportunity,” Brooks said of the monitor role. “It’s a great way to become acclimated to our school division, and it can lead to additional employment opportunities” — for example, as a substitute teacher or bus driver.
Fairfax has hired roughly 600 monitors so far, and is aiming to hire at least 200 more, a spokeswoman said, at a pay rate of $15.42 an hour. Fairfax — whose 186,000 students make it Virginia’s largest school system — has been online-only for most children since March 2020, although Superintendent Scott Brabrand on Tuesday debuted a plan that calls for returning all students who choose it to some form of in-person learning by mid-March.
In Prince George’s County, Maryland’s second-largest district, there are no plans for classroom monitors, a spokeswoman said. Chief executive Monica Goldson is expected to provide details about reopening in an announcement in mid-February.
In D.C., the city reopened its school buildings Feb. 2, bringing back about 9,500 students, along with some teachers. Around 3,800 of those students are receiving at least some of their courses virtually in school buildings while a classroom aide or teacher assists.
The logistics are too complicated to avoid this setup, principals and school leaders said in interviews. At the middle school and high school levels, for example, students have different teachers for most subjects. But due to strict safety guidelines, they have to stay with the same one or two teachers throughout the day.
Hence the need for virtual options inside classrooms.
The majority of the school system’s 52,000 students are still learning at home, and the city has to balance staffing these classes while staffing the smaller in-person classrooms.
On Friday, students across multiple grade levels at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in Southeast Washington had their headphones on and their laptops open as an aide wandered the room checking to see whether any student needed help.
“It’s based on the staffing that is available,” Principal Angel Hunter said. “We also have to staff our virtual classrooms.”
All major school systems in Northern Virginia see classroom monitors as part of their reopenings.
Fairfax, Alexandria and Loudoun have promised to send all children who choose it back to school for in-person learning by mid-March. In contrast, Arlington officials have repeatedly delayed setting a firm date for the return to school — but they are under immense pressure from Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who said Friday that he is demanding all schools statewide begin offering some in-person learning by March 15.
Ahead of the governor’s deadline, administrators in Northern Virginia are working quickly to hire monitors. Fairfax posted ads on social media, in local newspapers, with the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center and even on iHeart Radio streaming services.
Loudoun has so far hired 207 monitors — called “proctors” — and is hunting for 80 more. Arlington has hired 30 and is “planning to hire additional,” spokesman Frank Bellavia said.
Alexandria, meanwhile, is “actively recruiting” roughly 50 classroom monitors who will earn $15.48 an hour, spokeswoman Julia Burgos said. Officials for the school system of 16,000 said they may hire up to 100 monitors, and they hope this will be enough to cover for teachers who are granted virtual status for medical reasons — but if it isn’t, they will hire more.
Alexandria is asking teachers about their ability to return, and Chief of Staff Stephen Wilkins said he expects to get a better sense of the numbers next week. The most recent survey found that nearly half of the staff would prefer to keep teaching virtually, but Wilkins hopes that the advent of vaccination, along with improving community health metrics, will seriously shrink that group.
Asked about some parents’ complaint that monitor-led classes fall far short of in-person teacher instruction, Wilkins was circumspect.
“I think each parent will have to make their assessment of whether their student should be in school,” he said. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Burgos said she understands that monitors are not “the ideal situation.”
But “it’s our way of being able to resolve a staffing constraint that we’ve been grappling with for some time,” she said. “It’s our valiant effort to get kids back in classrooms; it’s a temporary solution.”