“I understand there are equity issues,” he said. “But I think there’s a way to have things fair and still provide more of a learning experience than kids are getting now.”
His concerns in Montgomery County, one of the nation’s largest and most diverse school systems, come amid broader tensions between learning and fairness in a suburb where poverty co-exists with affluence and priorities sometimes clash.
As online learning has ramped up, parents have complained about a lack of real-time instruction and teacher connection, especially for middle and high school students.
School officials, along with some parents and teachers, counter that the system is doing its best amid an unprecedented health crisis, while trying to help families who lack access to technology or who are facing health or economic difficulties. Schools handed out more than 65,000 loaner laptops and 5,100 WiFi hotspots. Yet equity issues remain. Some students still don’t have access to devices or reliable Internet connections.
“Some students can’t access anything online, whether it’s live or not,” said Byron Johns, education chair of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP.
With campuses closed through the end of the school year and plans uncertain for the fall, Superintendent Jack Smith said in an interview that the move from the classroom to distance learning has been a shift like no other — and especially tricky for a district with 208 schools and more than 166,000 students.
“They are totally different realities,” he said. “Of course it’s not perfect. Of course there have been mistakes.”
The shortcomings have led to some changes and a broader rethinking of how online learning should look in the fall, if it is still needed. With middle school students in particular, the need for “a more connected experience” has become more clear, officials said.
Still, “nobody is going to come through your computer screen and be in your living room with your child; it’s not possible, and I mean that very respectfully,” Smith said.
Live vs. recorded
As the pandemic shuttered schools nationwide in March, districts scrambled to switch to distance learning. But the transition did not always happen quickly. Fairfax County, Va., waited four weeks, including spring break, then had a disastrous debut because of technology glitches and online harassment.
Montgomery County offered no new instruction for two weeks, instead putting its teachers on “emergency leave” after campuses closed. The district posted “learning activities” on the school system’s website, a lull that left some parents dismayed.
In week three, online instruction began with a blend of posted assignments, live sessions, prerecorded (or “asynchronous”) lessons, and virtual office hours for questions or support.
The recorded lessons are a mix: Sometimes teachers record themselves giving a lesson, which some parents say helps keep up a connection with students. Sometimes they post recordings made by others.
Michelle Grossman, a mother of three in Chevy Chase, said her fourth-grader is in class every day at 9:15 a.m., interacting with her teacher and classmates. It’s not perfect, she said, but “she’s learning things, she’s connecting with people.”
For her middle school student, it’s been far more limited, said Grossman, who is PTSA president at Westland Middle School. Only three of her daughter’s seven courses meet regularly for live instruction — and that’s just once a week per class, she said. Otherwise, her sixth-grader’s school days are all posted assignments, prerecorded material, and office hours or check-ins, she said.
This is typical across the county. Elementary students see their teachers live online daily, but many middle and high school students receive assignments on Mondays, with teacher office hours or check-ins twice a week for each class. Middle school parents say students need more.
“Without the live interaction, you’re expecting 12-year-olds to basically do independent study,” Grossman said. “It’s about the content, but it’s also about the social-emotional piece they’re missing.”
For some parents, the blame lies not with teachers but with their union. Several parents said school administrators have told them they cannot require live instruction because of an agreement the Montgomery County teachers’ union and the school system signed in April.
But it is not that simple. That agreement gives teachers flexibility, school and union officials said, because some might need to care for their own children or families, and some might find asynchronous learning the better way to go for their students.
“It was not our intention as an association, as a union, to say, ‘We don’t want direct instruction of kids,’ ” said Christopher Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the 14,000-member union. “We expected there would be synchronous learning during this time. Teachers want to teach kids.”
Lloyd said school leadership teams set schedules and expectations based on school system guidance. “People with good intentions may be interpreting things differently,” he said.
Access equals success
Michael Williams, head of the social studies department at John F. Kennedy High School, said the mechanics of live instruction are more complicated than they appear. Recorded sessions allow for varying schedules, giving an equal shot to students who are working, caring for siblings or coping with covid-19 in their families.
“Our job is to make sure all of the students are able to access the material with as few barriers as possible, so that no one gets an unfair advantage,” he said.
Teachers see the difference that access makes. Amy Watkins, who heads the math department at North Bethesda Middle School, gives six live sessions a week — two for each of her three classes. About half of her students show up, and they regularly perform better than those who miss the sessions, she said. “They’ve gotten that support,” she said.
But it can be frustrating for some teachers, Watkins said, when only four or five students attend a session. “If the kids are coming, it makes a difference,” she said.
According to school system data, more than 210,000 live Zoom sessions of various kinds have been held by teachers since April 20, the start of the fourth marking period. In the first week of May, 70 percent of middle and high school students engaged in a live session.
School system spokesman Derek Turner said some form of direct teacher-student engagement is a priority, and the system is emphasizing the importance of live check-ins.
“We’re going to keep tweaking and changing and moving things to get it right,” he said. “We could be in this another three weeks or six months or a year. We don’t know.”
With all the unevenness, some parents say the school year should simply end sooner, so educators can regroup and come up with an improved system in case they need one this fall.
Kelly O’Keefe, a mother of two in Takoma Park, said her middle school student has had little live instruction, except in math. Rather, she has been largely tasked to do assignments and read slide decks — learning that is text-heavy and requires self-direction.
“This kind of learning is not successful for a lot of students, so why are we doing it until June 15?”
But in Maryland, the state requires 180 days of instruction, so that last day of school, whether live or recorded, is still in June.
Brian Krantz, the Bethesda father of two who had expected at least some live instruction, said that, given equity issues, he has come to accept the idea of asynchronous instruction.
Still, he said, teachers should record lessons that feature themselves leading the instruction, so that teacher-student connections continue. And they should reach out to students, not rely on students to ask questions.
With the possibility of more distance learning next school year, he said, the issue is increasingly important. If live instruction is not possible, he said, “what’s the best alternative and fairest thing to do for our kids?”