Superintendent Jack R. Smith took another step Tuesday, providing a more detailed look at how fall learning would work in the 166,500-student school system, which ranks as one of the nation’s largest and most diverse.
“While it isn’t the same as being able to work together in person, I want to assure you that we have developed a robust and dynamic virtual learning model that will provide engaging and enriching instruction for all students,” Smith wrote in the 43-page document.
His plan goes to the school board for a vote Thursday, but is expected to be finessed as board members, parents, staff and students weigh in. A final board vote is set for Aug. 25.
The all-virtual approach would remain in place at least through late January — when the first semester of the school year ends — under the proposal. In mid-fall, school officials will begin to explore what is best for the second semester, which starts Feb. 1.
The school system “remains committed to a path that returns our students to in-person instruction as soon as it is safe to do so,” Smith wrote.
The decision to embrace all-virtual instruction followed a recommendation from the county’s health officer, Travis Gayles, against in-person instruction for the early months of the school year as new cases of the novel coronavirus remain high.
With the most populous jurisdiction in the state, Montgomery County has reported nearly 18,000 coronavirus cases, according to tracking by The Washington Post. Nearly 800 people have died, the most of any county in Maryland.
In recent days, school openings have become a charged topic. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) clashed with Montgomery County leaders on whether private schools should be allowed to reopen for in-person instruction. The county had barred them from doing so, but Hogan has sought to invalidate the county’s directive.
Under the plan released for public schools, Montgomery school officials say they have built on what they learned during the spring, when Montgomery and other school systems scrambled to adjust to distance learning.
For the fall, there will be more live instruction and a full day of school, which students are expected to attend. Mostly, students would meet from 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., including time for breaks, lunch and student support periods.
Under the proposal, elementary school children could see 90 minutes of literacy a day and 75 to 90 minutes of math a day. Art, music, physical education, science and social studies are built into their schedules, along with support for English-language learners and students in special education.
“It’s attempting to replicate a bricks-and-mortar school day,” said Patricia O’Neill, a school board member.
While some parents have worried that online learning might mean too much screen time, especially for young children, the plan says a 75-minute elementary math class would include 45 minutes when screens are used and 30 minutes when they are not.
In middle and high school, students would have four one-hour class periods a day on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with independent work Wednesday morning and check-ins for every class Wednesday afternoon.
The plan says school officials are developing a way to record lessons so they can be watched later — important for students who are caregivers to younger siblings during the day, or who may be otherwise affected by family circumstances or technology glitches.
Under the plan, the school system would track student engagement closely, monitoring for students who have been out of touch with teachers or not completing assignments and creating plans to address student needs.
Cynthia Simonson, president of Montgomery’s countywide council of PTAs, welcomed the proposal, saying parents have been craving more detail as they try to balance their children’s education with their work schedules and other considerations.
“The not knowing has been possibly the biggest concern,” she said.
The school system has so far handed out more than 70,000 loaner Chromebook laptops and intends to distribute thousands more this month, with a goal of one device per student, said Pete Cevenini, the school district’s chief technology officer.
Another 5,700 WiFi hotspots have been distributed to students to help with Internet connections.
Support for families is also included in the proposal, which cites trainings and workshops for parents on issues of wellness, family relationships, technology and distance-learning support.
Schools have the option to integrate mindfulness activities into their schedules, and social-emotional learning is expected at all levels, the proposal said.
Student grading is expected to follow traditional systems, and the school system expects to keep athletics and extracurricular activities going virtually.
After the first semester ends, if health conditions allow, school officials would move toward the kind of hybrid approach they were previously considering — gradually bringing students back on campus part-time, with reduced class sizes and fewer students in school buildings. Families could opt to stick with an all-virtual approach if they prefer.