First impressions varied across the Maryland suburbs as students, parents and educators finished the first week of a school year that began virtually Aug. 31, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Many families found the debut was far better than in the spring, when schools in the Washington region and nationally shuttered suddenly as cases of the novel coronavirus surged and school officials scrambled to shift to distance learning.
They laud teachers’ efforts and say they appreciate that school systems are trying to do something never done before: start a school year all-virtual, with educators teaching from their homes and students plugging in from Chromebook laptops set up on kitchen tables and bedroom desks.
But some lament glitches in technology — difficulties logging on, freeze-ups in live sessions — while others question issues related to instructional time, resources for children with special needs and overload for the very young.
And even as the year was starting, state education leaders were still working out what they expect of all-online schooling.
On Tuesday, the Maryland State Board of Education voted to require an average of 3.5 hours of live teaching spread out over a school day “across the grades.”
Depending on how that is calculated — which remains unclear — some school systems in Maryland could fall short, including its two largest systems, in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. State officials said they would be working with local leaders to help them sort out the requirement, with compliance expected by late December.
Montgomery officials said they were seeking greater clarity on the issue, and Prince George’s officials said they did not have a comment.
Under the state action, school systems with plans to stay all-virtual until at least January — including Montgomery and Prince George’s — must also reevaluate their plans by the end of the first quarter.
Not everyone welcomed the prospect of more change, at a time when so much is being reinvented.
“There is a lot of anxiety around: Do we have to alter the schedule again, and if so, what do we have to do?” said Christopher Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the 14,000-member county teachers union.
The union and Montgomery’s school system recently signed an agreement that lays out many particulars for teachers, including that they are not required to teach live more than five hours a day and that the union will get at least 45 days’ notice of a return to school buildings for in-person instruction.
Sarah Park, a social studies teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Montgomery County, said it’s challenging to get to know new students at a distance, without in-person classes. Not everyone turns their video on, and interactions can be muffled.
One example: It used to be that if a student laughed, others might follow, the sound rippling through a classroom. Now, sounds don’t get through unless a microphone is turned on.
“Sometimes those kinds of emotions are what make people feel more comfortable,” she said. Still, “the students are showing up, which is great,” she said. “They are participating.”
Montgomery officials voiced optimism about the first week, saying they were pleased by how students and staff “jumped right in.” They said they had worked all week to provide WiFi hotspots to families in need.
Early data, they said, showed more than 458,000 log-ins to the school system’s digital platform, with nearly 125,000 Zoom classes initiated.
Anand Chitnis, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School, said students seem more acclimated to online learning and Zoom classes than before. Now, he said, there’s a general sense: “This is what it’s going to be for the semester, and so let’s hunker down and do this.”
The new school year brings more structure and a fuller schedule than last spring. There is live instruction each class — but fewer minutes of it per week than during in-person school.
More than 165,000 loaner Chromebook laptops were distributed in Montgomery, roughly the same as enrollment. A majority of students in Prince George’s, which has 136,500 students, have iPads or Chromebooks.
“I think things are going as well as we can expect,” said Kristin Erdheim, a mother of four in the Montgomery County community of Derwood. “This is really hard on the teachers, the kids and the parents. Everybody is just doing the best they can.”
Others said they had a particularly hard go of it.
The week was filled with frustration for Joff Pincher’s 9-year-old son with autism, he said. The boy was not engaged in classes, grew distracted and walked away; it was nothing like the experiences he’d had with talented teachers when classes were held in person, said Pincher, of Silver Spring. Friday ended with the child slamming a Chromebook closed, sobbing.
“There is not a hope . . . he will ever be able to learn this way,” Pincher said.
Michelle Grossman, PTSA president at Westland Middle School in Bethesda, said it’s great that kids now wake up with a sense of academic purpose and somewhere to be. Live instruction for middle school students is notably expanded, she said.
But Grossman said she wishes students followed the same kind of schedule on Wednesdays, when middle and high school students have “check-ins” with teachers, which parents say are often optional.
“I’m baffled at why they gave up on giving them five full days of instruction,” she said. “I remain concerned about whether they will learn the quantity and quality of content they are supposed to learn this year.”
Some parents say they like the breaks in the schedule, especially for younger children, noting that shorter days on Wednesdays can relieve midweek stress.
In neighboring Prince George’s County, schools chief executive Monica E. Goldson said in a statement Friday that the system has been working to help students and families with technology challenges.
She mentioned one disappointment: Inappropriate images or profanity were displayed in some virtual classrooms, and school officials said they are not sure the offenders were enrolled in county schools.
“Each day gets better,” she said.
Karla Andrews-Salmon, president of the PTSO at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, said that while she had heard of technology troubles in some areas of the county, the first week went smoothly at her school. “Everything went as good as it could have,” she said. “It’s an adjustment. It’s growing pains.”
School board member Raaheela Ahmed (District 5) said the reopening has been hard on parents, students and teachers as they get used to new systems. She said she has heard accounts of children breaking down in frustration as they try to join their classes and is concerned that not all students have access to technology, books or other materials.
“If we want to set them up for success, this is vital,” she said.
Prince George’s officials have said Chromebook laptops or iPads have gone out to 85,000 to 90,000 students and more will be distributed; some are on back order, and some families use their own technology.
Some parents focused on the difficulties that teachers and schools face. They point out that some teachers are juggling jobs and children — like other parents — and that any number of people are facing hardships or tragedy amid the pandemic.
“You know we are home for a good reason,” said Crystal Carpenter, PTSA president at Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale. “This is the new reality. You hope for the best.”
Carpenter said she was disappointed by the state board’s action and believes it’s not the time to increase instructional hours. “You have to balance self-care in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “A child shouldn’t be sitting in front of a screen longer.”
School officials from both districts say they have made curriculum adjustments to make courses work for students in a virtual setting, despite fewer minutes a week of live class time.
Brenda Lewis, director of pre-K to 12 curriculum in Montgomery, said Wednesdays are important for middle and high school students to be able to check in with teachers and get help — as they might do during lunch periods on campus.
She said the school system has examined each course at each grade to determine essential standards and make adjustments so that students cover key material.
Similarly, Judith White, chief academic officer, said adjustments had been made, with the idea that “we’re going to make sure they cover the necessary standards that they would have learned coming into the building every day.”
But for Brammer, the mother of three at College Gardens Elementary, distance learning did not seem as robust as needed.
Her kindergartner, who has an individualized education program, cried all five days of the first week, she said. She said it is crucial to get younger children, especially those with special needs, back into the classroom as soon as conditions allow.
Brammer said her older children would benefit from more real-time, direct instruction.
“Do I feel it will be enough to where they will be able to meet their benchmarks at the end of the year?” she said. “No.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Judith White’s title. She is chief academic officer, and the story has been corrected.