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Montgomery County schools launch remote learning: ‘It will be chaotic’

Max Alarcon, 17, waits with his sisters Lisa Cardenas, 6, and Yulianna Cardenas, 12, to pick up Chromebooks being distributed by Montgomery County Public Schools at Bel Pre Elementary School in Silver Spring on Thursday. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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With schools shuttered across Maryland amid the coronavirus pandemic, Max Alarcon stood beside his younger sisters outside Bel Pre Elementary School in Silver Spring, the three of them wearing face masks as they waited in line to get Chromebook laptops.

“We are just trying to get prepared,” the teenager said.

Days after handing out more than 40,000 loaner laptops to students in need, Montgomery County schools begin distance education this week — a learning experiment like never before in one of the nation’s largest and most diverse school systems.

Many details of Montgomery’s new remote learning system are still being worked out, but Monday marks the launch of a first phase. After two weeks off on emergency leave, teachers will start by training and reconnecting with students. Instruction is expected to resume this week.

In an interview, Schools Superintendent Jack Smith said the transition would be bumpy but is needed. State officials last week ordered that schools remain closed through at least April 24. The shutdown could last longer: Virginia and a handful of other states have already canceled school for the rest of the academic year.

“Now that we know what is going to be happening next, we’re swinging into action,” Smith said. “It will be chaotic, it will be difficult — and we are going to do it.”

Technological needs came first. Late last week, thousands of students from Silver Spring to Clarksburg turned out at schools to pick up Chromebooks, which are usually kept in classrooms across the 166,000-student school system.

“It’s going to be very, very, very helpful,” said Guy Fotso, a father from Silver Spring who said his family has one malfunctioning desktop computer. He carted home two laptops that he said would make all the difference for his kindergartner and second-grader.

A day later, one of Fotso’s daughters had already connected with a teacher. “They were very excited,” he said.

In Maryland’s largest school system, where more than 55,000 students from low-income families receive subsidized school meals, school officials have long pointed to a digital divide between students with devices at home and students without them. Even families who own a laptop may have a parent working at home on it or multiple children who need to do class work.

“Our goal is to make sure all of our families and students have what they need to be successful,” said Pete Cevenini, chief technology officer, who oversaw the mass distribution of Chromebooks.

The school system plans to offer a more limited number of WiFi hotspots and has been encouraging families to pursue a Comcast offer of two months’ free Internet to low-income households.

Even with the provisions, school officials say they also are planning for other modes of learning: written materials, telephone contacts and televised content. They are focused on ways to reach students with a variety of needs, including those with disabilities and English language learners.

In the week ahead, the focus will be on third-quarter grades and assignments.

“Learning is going to be different, but what’s important is there’s going to be learning,” said Lisa Adkins, a third-grade teacher at Lakewood Elementary School in Rockville. “It won’t be perfect in the beginning, but it’ll get figured out.”

Teachers said that just like parents, some educators may be juggling family obligations, and some may take time to adapt to new teaching tools. But a lot of teachers have digital experience to draw on. Montgomery has 150,000 Chromebooks, and many educators at its 208 schools have used them for years.

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Amani Elkassabany, who teaches honors English 12 at Wootton High School, has long used online platforms to create assignments and shared documents for her classes. She said she was confident her students would be able to resume learning, starting with finishing up their study of “Othello.”

“What’s really going to be missing is face-to-face discussion,” she said. But the county’s online platform includes a discussion board, she said. “It still allows for inquiry and exchange of ideas, and students can pose questions and get questions answered,” she said.

At John F. Kennedy High School, Neha Singhal, a social studies teacher, said her IB anthropology class is discussing a mini ethnographic project that would examine aspects of the coronavirus crisis — how people are coping, what the ripple effects are, whom it’s hurting most, what it says about how our society works.

“It’s just a very important learning moment,” she said, adding that the crisis will also become part of lessons in her government and Latin American studies classes.

But Singhal said she is also focused on being compassionate, recognizing students may be helping their families get through a tough time or be struggling with anxiety. “It’s such an overwhelming time for students,” she said. “If we give one meaningful assignment or project in a week, or in two weeks, I think that it’s more worthwhile than busy work.”

She and others said they remain uncertain about how grading will work. State officials have mentioned the possibility of pass-fail grades for the fourth quarter, and a Montgomery County schools spokesman said the district is weighing the idea. Singhal sees it as an ethical question. “It’s such an abnormal situation that we can’t follow normal protocols,” she said.

In an interview last week, Smith, the superintendent, said Montgomery is committed to helping high school seniors stay on track and get their diplomas. The school system will work with the state to resolve obstacles, he said, including graduation requirements that may be hard to achieve, such as community service.

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“We’re going to do everything in our power to help them be successful and complete their 12th-grade year,” Smith said.

Some parents have complained that Montgomery did not move quickly enough to implement remote learning. For the first two weeks, the school system posted “learning activities” on its website and in hard-copy packets; it was largely a review of material already learned.

On Friday night, Smith sent out a community message with more detail about what is ahead, noting that remote learning will not replicate typical school days but will be a mix of teacher instruction and support, independent work and graded assignments.

As the effort ramps up, many parents are looking for detailed guidance about what they should do, and when and how children need to plug in, said Cynthia Simonson, president of the countywide council of PTAs. “Parents need as much direction as possible,” she said.

Few involved expect anything but an imperfect beginning.

Glenn Miller, who teaches biology at Sherwood High School and has been using an outline platform, said he is excited to try something new but is also apprehensive. He wondered: How will he check in with all 150 of his students and support those who need more time? How will he avoid scheduling conflicts with students’ other courses? And how will he know whether students are doing okay emotionally?

“This is a big lift, and it’s happening real fast, and we want to get it right,” he said.

Miller said he will take a scientific approach — using trial and error, testing things out. “There’s going to be a little bit of flying by the seat of your pants,” he said. “It’s just natural. Learning is not a perfect science, and this is not a perfect platform.”

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