More than a dozen families streamed into Tubman Elementary in Northwest Washington before the first online class was set to begin about 8:45 a.m. Some arrived to pick up Internet hotspots for their children or ask technical questions, as remote ways of learning became a new and sometimes bewildering norm.
“It’s weird,” said Jean Carlos Cruz Martinez, 10, dressed in a crisp blue button-down shirt as he walked with his mother to school because he had trouble logging into his class. “I don’t know what we are going to do all day.”
In Montgomery County, a notice went out 15 minutes after classes began at Thomas Pyle Middle School reporting “some technical difficulties throughout the county right now.” The slowness was related to a cloud-service provider and lasted 60 to 90 minutes, a spokeswoman said.
In Prince George’s County, parents were notified of “isolated technical problems,” which a school system spokeswoman said involved two schools and was resolved in the morning.
It all came with the first steps into an academic year starting in the middle of a global pandemic, a time that could hardly have been imagined a year ago. No backpacks to hoist or lunchboxes to tote. No outdoor recess aswirl with new classmates.
Public school systems have been ramping up for months — and while many teachers and education leaders are voicing optimism, it is clear that some things are still up in the air.
In Maryland, as administrators, teachers and staff bore down on the final week before the start of classes, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) made a surprise announcement Thursday that he was authorizing schools to reopen for in-person learning, based on improving health metrics.
Hogan has no power to order schools to open their buildings for the academic year, but he and State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon urged school boards to rethink their plans, particularly school systems — such as those in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — that committed to remain strictly virtual through January.
“I was absolutely appalled that he thought this was the appropriate time to come up with this idea — three or four days before school started,” said Brenda Wolff, vice president of the Montgomery County school board. “It’s like throwing a grenade into it.”
Wolff and other school leaders said they would rather see bricks-and-mortar schools open, as they have in the past. “But I don’t believe it’s safe,” she said. “I think Montgomery County has made a decision for the safety of our students and our staff.”
In the District, more than 50 percent of families responding to a city survey in the summer indicated that they did not have the computers or Internet access needed for distance learning.
By Monday afternoon, the D.C. school system had delivered technology devices to 18,900 students, schools spokesman Shayne Wells said. Wells said that many families were still registering their children in school Monday and that schools were still making requests for more computers with Internet access. He said the school system would meet those requests.
It’s unclear how many students in the District or elsewhere were locked out of their first day of school for lack of technology.
Montgomery County said it has loaned out more than 160,000 Chromebook laptops since the pandemic hit, nearly as many as last year’s enrollment of 166,500. Prince George’s, with 136,500 students, said it has distributed 85,000 to 90,000 Chromebooks and iPads, with some families providing their own devices and some devices on back order; more are being provided on a rolling basis.
Richard Jackson, who heads the Council of School Officers, a union for mid-level leadership in the D.C. school system, said it would have been easier if schools had more time to prepare and blamed Mayor Muriel E. Bowser for delaying by two weeks her decision on how to start the academic year. Bowser (D) was expected to announce in mid-July that the school year would begin with a hybrid model but at the last minute delayed the decision and announced on July 31 that the school year would be all virtual.
“That was catastrophic,” Jackson said. “No one will say we could not have really used those two weeks.”
Bowser said at a news conference Monday that demand for the school system’s tech hotline was “very, very high” and that the school system was looking into establishing a second line to accommodate the volume of inquiries.
Even with the benefit of resources and technology, distance learning isn’t easy.
Alexandra Bloom formed a distance learning pod earlier in the summer with her child and two other kindergartners attending the same Capitol Hill school. But when they got their class assignments last week, she learned they all had different teachers — making the setup more difficult, even with the facilitator they hired to supervise the children while she and the other parents worked.
There were tears and frustrations the first day, Bloom said, as students struggled with the mute and microphone functions; her daughter became upset when she couldn’t be heard.
“It’s tricky,” she said. “Within five minutes, two of them were saying they were bored and done with this.”
In Prince George’s County, Monica Goldson, chief executive, said it was inevitable that there would be “hiccups and challenges” and asked for patience during these first few weeks of school so the system could course-correct along the way.
Goldson also defended the decision to choose a virtual first semester, saying the school system worked with the community, staff members and health officials to reach “the difficult but necessary decision to put safety and health over our desire for normalcy.”
By 7:50 a.m., the third-graders at Cooper Lane Elementary School in Prince George’s County were meeting their new teacher — “Miss P” — via Zoom.
“Good morning to all my brand-new third-graders!” called out Mary Piccirilli, who was named teacher of the year in Prince George’s. “I am so excited that you all are here this morning. I am so excited to see everyone’s faces!”
The class started with getting to know one another — naming one summer activity that was fun, a favorite book, a goal. One girl learned to ride a bike. Another went to the pool. One boy played soccer, and another played Fortnite with his cousin.
There were technical issues — an error code on one child’s computer, an unsuccessful effort to move a small group of students into a session for English-language learners. But transitions went more smoothly later — and 22 of 25 students logged on at some point.
One boy shared two items from his home — as other children had — showing off a book and a deck of cards.
“Is that Uno?” Piccirilli asked.
“Yes, and I beat my Mom in Uno last night,” he said proudly.
In Montgomery County, Inge Chichester, head of the social studies department at Sligo Middle School and the county’s teacher of the year, said the first week should be about forging relationships in any school year — but especially during remote learning and as racial unrest has gripped the nation.
For schools, she said, the importance of the moment is widely understood. “It’s not going to be perfect, but we’re going to get this thing right,” she said.
In schools across the area, the all-virtual school day is expected to be different from the online learning that students experienced in the spring, when the coronavirus pandemic suddenly shuttered schools locally and across the nation.
Now, students have more detailed schedules, with more live instruction. Attendance will be taken. Grading is expected to return to the way it was done pre-pandemic. In Northern Virginia, school districts will open remotely Sept. 8.
Mike Bannister, a father of two in Germantown, said that after a minor issue for one of his daughters Monday morning, distance learning went well. The day was smooth, he said, adding that he hoped it would stay that way.
“I think it’s going to go a lot better than it did in the spring,” he said. “I think the kids are adjusted, and it’s the best and safest way until covid-19 is cleared up.”
Quynh Tran, a mother of two in Chevy Chase, said everything worked for her 15-year old — his teachers sent video links to classes a day in advance — but two of his friends had problems, with their Chromebooks crashing.
For those kids who have parents around to troubleshoot or provide replacement devices, it could be overcome, she said, “but for those without resources, I can’t imagine how frustrating the first day of school would be.”
Christopher Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents 14,000 educators, said teachers have had an extraordinarily tough time planning for the new school year, with coronavirus cases rising during the summer and confusion about when and how they would be required to return to campus.
“It’s like a whole bunch of external forces keep changing the compass settings on us,” he said. “After a while teachers, like everyone else now, feel like they just want some certainty.”
Many of the District’s charter campuses, which educate nearly half of the city’s public school students, opened Monday — a few in person but most online.
But even with all the preparation, some teachers said they still wonder how this will all work. Eppie Kyles, a kindergarten teacher at Seaton Elementary in Northwest Washington, said that during the first week of school she typically teaches children about the routines of school. They learn the rules of the playground, how to walk in a line in the school, where items are located in the classroom.
“I’m having trouble knowing how to teach the typical routines,” Kyles said. “Without all those physical things, I’m a bit confused what the first week of school looks like.”
Teachers have worked hard on virtual instruction — many focused on it all summer, trying to prepare for a fall semester “that is more robust and rigorous than what we were able to deliver in the spring, when we were, essentially, crisis teaching,” said Leah Michaels, head of the English department at Richard Montgomery High School.
Despite the distance between home and school, some families were keeping up their first-day traditions — new backpacks for children, back-to-school photos. Loren Murad in Bethesda took photos of her daughters Caroline, 8, and Irene, 6, with empty backpacks and no shoes, posed at their front door before they went inside to log on to their classes at Bannockburn Elementary School.
Ahead of the first day, some teachers gave their students the kind of name tags that they typically would have attached to their classroom desks.
“It seems like the schools and teachers have taken a really hard situation and made it as uplifting and welcoming as it can be,” said Robyn Kravitz, chair of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.
Meghan Sharkey, a mother of two in Upper Marlboro, said her children started classes at 7:45 a.m. Monday, ending after 1 p.m. There were breaks and a lunch period, and for her fourth-grader, “it went without a hitch.” But her younger child is just 5 years old — starting kindergarten and fidgety like most boys his age.
PE was one of the highlights for him. “Other than a few technical hiccups, I think it went as well as it could for kindergartners who are used to moving their bodies and not staying in one place,” she said.
Kathryn Tolbert contributed to this report.