A week into school closings across the Washington region, Rodman’s 45-minute daily sessions on Zoom — one in economics, one in government — are more a glimpse of what is possible than a real-time reality for hundreds of thousands of public school students.
School systems in the region are moving toward distance learning, but the ramp-up has been gradual in many cases, posing an array of challenges.
It is complicated by uncertainties about whether schools are closed for two weeks, a month — or, some worry, until the school year ends in June. The District just extended school closings until late April.
In Virginia, public school students do not have required assignments or grades for the next few weeks, following guidance from state officials.
Fairfax County Superintendent Scott Brabrand said that’s because school leaders “cannot ensure equity in access” to resources, including computers and Internet service.
“We . . . know our families are concerned about instruction and learning for our students,” Brabrand wrote in a message to families in the 188,000-student system. “Please know our teachers care and want to support their students.”
If the closure extends beyond mid-April, Fairfax will offer instruction through online exercises or hard-copy packets, he said. Teachers will begin “distance learning training” to prepare for that possibility over the next two weeks.
But until then?
“I just hope they somehow keep learning,” said Fairfax County sixth-grade teacher Lee Lowder. In some ways, he said, the age of coronavirus may make his job easier.
“We have a golden opportunity to get kids to read!” he said. “They’re captive, they can’t go anywhere.”
One early assignment that proved fruitful came when Lowder asked students to write letters to their future selves about “what you’re going through right now,” he said. When the responses came in, he was stunned: It was the most superb sixth-grade writing he had seen.
In Montgomery County, with Maryland’s largest school system, educators have provided hard-copy packets and online “instructional activities” since schools were closed statewide, but the material is review-oriented, not intended to provide new instruction.
Some parents have questioned why the system could not have moved more directly to online instruction. They worry learning could stall for months.
Montgomery officials say their efforts are a work in progress.
“There’s a vision that all you have to do is flip a switch and everything can be on the computer in a student’s living room,” said Derek Turner, spokesman for the 166,000-student system. “But that’s not how it works.”
A major issue, he said, is equity: Some students don’t have computers or Internet at home and are at risk of being left out. Others, with disabilities, must be given equal access to education under law — and yet remote learning can be complex because of special needs.
On top of that, not all teachers are experienced on platforms like WebEx and Zoom.
“We have a face-to-face human interaction model of education,” Turner said. Montgomery has not needed a systemwide distance learning model before, he said.
Federal officials issued guidance Saturday saying federal law should not keep schools from offering distance learning for all students just because the district cannot offer it fully for those with disabilities.
If schools remain closed the week of March 30, the Montgomery system will begin to transition toward new instruction and more active engagement with teachers, Turner said.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Chromebook laptops will be distributed to students who lack devices at home, and WiFi hotspots will also be passed out, though the school system has a lot fewer on hand, Turner said.
Teachers in Montgomery are eager to teach and concerned about the social-emotional well-being of their students, said Christopher Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the county teachers union.
“The sooner that teachers can make those contacts with students and resume instruction, the better-off we’ll all be,” he said. “For a lot of our teachers, it was a traumatic and abrupt end when they had to send their students out the door, not knowing if and how this virus would affect them, their students or their families,” he said.
“Goodbyes are in June,” he said. “Goodbyes are not in March.”
Michael Petrilli, a parent in Montgomery who is also president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, said even if online learning is imperfect, it’s important to try because so much is at stake.
“What if we’re closed for the rest of the school year?” he asked. “Clearly, students aren’t going to learn as much as they could if schools were open, but they can learn a whole lot more than if the district does nothing.”
Some school systems are charting a different course.
Monica Goldson, chief executive of public schools in Prince George’s County in Maryland, said that with 82,000 students who receive free and reduced-price meals in her system — an indicator of socioeconomic status and need — she knows online instruction would not get to everyone in the system of more than 136,000.
Teachers have sent home packets and other work, hosted video calls and connected with students and parents by phone and email. New packets were posted online last week and will be distributed at sites that provide free meals to students.
Goldson said the system is exploring new ideas, including leveraging the possibilities of television. “What we do know is that everyone has a television, so how can we begin to push out lessons in a nontraditional way?” she said.
Reshma Sinanan-Hill, a mother of two in Brandywine, said she is similarly focused on how to keep up learning. Her children attend Overlook Full Spanish Immersion School in Temple Hills and are missing language experience along with academics.
She noted children often experience “summer slide,” losing ground at school during long breaks.
“I’m concerned about the ‘corona slide,’ ” said Sinanan-Hill, who is PTA president. “There’s definitely a huge setback from all of this. We have substantial time left in the school year.”
One bright point, Sinanan-Hill said: On Thursday night, the school’s reading specialist, Denise Cabrera, hosted a story time by Zoom, reading a book in Spanish to students as they followed along and listened to her familiar voice. She asked questions afterward — and gave time for students to greet one another. “It was fun, I saw a lot of laughing and smiles,” Cabrera said.
Nearly 100 families participated.
In the District’s public school system, packets at every grade level — in hard copy and online — run more than 90 pages. Principals have created more individualized lessons for students with special education needs, officials said.
Remote learning is scheduled to start Tuesday in the District.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said teachers are expected to hold remote office hours for at least four hours a day to connect with students by phone or online, and mental health workers are being asked to contact students they know are struggling.
For every student and teacher, the interactions may look a little different. Some teachers will be connecting with individual students on the phone, others may hold virtual lessons in groups.
“Ideally, we will hear from all of our students and families regularly,” Ferebee said.
The distance learning plans for the city’s more than 60 charter networks all look a little different. Some schools are sending students home with laptops and tablets. Others are sticking mainly to printed worksheets.
At KIPP DC, the city’s largest charter network with seven campuses, staff members distributed more than 6,000 packets and nearly 1,000 Chromebooks to students.
Dane Anderson, chief operating officer of KIPP DC, wrote to staff Friday that more than 95 percent of families picked up their children’s packets at school this week. The network is mailing the remainder.
“Our Tech Team pulled off a miracle, getting 1,200 employees and 1,000 students ready for remote work over a weekend — Zoom, Box, Slack are all up and running and ready to roll,” he wrote. “Also, we have a fully staffed remote support center.”
In Virginia, students in Alexandria City Public Schools are working their way through instructional packets, which offer daily activities such as identifying all the sources of water in a house.
In Arlington, students are tackling online activities — including games meant to teach fractions — and hard-copy packets. The school system gives third- through eighth-graders iPads and ninth- through 12th-graders MacBooks, said Bridget Loft, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.
The online and print exercises are all “highly encouraged” but not mandated, Loft said, given officials estimate between 400 and 600 families within the school system struggle to find reliable Internet service.
Officials are discussing what will happen if schools remain closed for longer — and the path forward is by no means clear.
“For a three-week period, we can hold steady, sort of tread water,” Loft said. “Longer than that, we’ll have some really gnarly challenging questions when it relates to equity and introducing new concepts and how do we assess kids in a way that’s fair.”
Parents have managed what schools have offered in different ways.
Jessica Grebeldinger, 41, started her week in Rockville, Md., by making daily schedules for her 6- and 9-year-olds. She carved out chunks of time for crafting, playing outside and working on academics online.
She said the school system has offered online resources, including typing activities, educational games and digital books — almost too much content, with too little guidance, Grebeldinger said.
“We’re not getting any information from the teachers right now, so it doesn’t seem like it’s critical we’re doing schoolwork,” she said. “I think everybody’s going to be equally behind.”
For Tim Rodman, the social studies teacher who organized class time on Zoom with students at Walter Johnson High, the first week online went well. He had never moderated a Zoom session before.
About 60 students were participating in macroeconomics by week’s end, and about 50 in an AP Government class. He did not teach new material but kept the sessions confined to discussion and review, as he had been advised.
The number of students did not taper off after the first couple of days.
For Friday, his government students asked Rodman if it could be “Crazy Hat Day,” something they celebrate during spirit week at school.
They showed up in ball caps, colonial gear, a military helmet, a fedora, even a headpiece from an Angry Bird costume.
Rodman wore a glittery gold top hat.
“They just really liked the idea of the continuity,” he said. “Being able to connect with classmates and salvage a piece of what was normal for them prior to this self-isolation.”
Laura Meckler contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story used an incorrect pronoun for Fairfax County teacher Lee Lowder. It has been updated.