Students’ days will be largely unstructured. Athletics and clubs have been canceled. And for the nation’s younger learners, it’s up to parents to ensure their children are reading and completing their math problems — all while parents juggle their own work responsibilities.
“There is no blueprint for this,” said Lewis D. Ferebee, chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. “It’s been 360 degrees of communication. . . . We are trying to think through all the logistics we need to solve for.”
For many, the idea is to provide students with some sense of normalcy and routine. In the Maryland suburbs, Prince George’s County Public Schools’ 136,000 students received learning packets. Alexandria City Public Schools in Northern Virginia delivered more than 9,000 packets to students on Friday.
The Alexandria packets, which are supplemented with online lessons, include activities that instruct children how to measure a shadow at different times of the day. There’s also arts and craft projects and instructions to stay active and do jumping jacks.
Staff members in Montgomery County, Md., set up an “instructional activities center” on its school system website, where students can find materials that will not be graded but are intended to extend previous learning. Packets are being offered for those without Internet at home. The goal is to keep students as engaged as possible, even if it is impossible to replicate an academic day.
“Instead of summer learning loss, it could be covid-19 learning loss,” said Derek Turner, spokesman for the Montgomery County schools.
In the District, packets for students at every grade level — which can be picked up this week and are also available online — run more than 90 pages. Principals have created more individualized lessons for students with special education needs.
Ferebee said teachers will hold remote office hours to connect with students each day by phone or online, and mental health workers are instructed to contact students who they know are struggling.
Teachers in the District will report to work one last day Monday to finalize plans and remote learning will officially begin March 23 after students complete a five-day spring break.
Fairfax County Public Schools — the largest school system in Virginia and among the biggest in the nation — has taken a different approach and will provide academic resources to students, but Superintendent Scott Brabrand said in a message to families that “this work will not be required or graded.”
The school system, which will be closed until at least April 10, is debuting education cable channels for students across grade levels that they can watch.
“We were surprised by it because we were expecting a detailed educational plan,” said Mona Hassan, 18, who attends South Lakes High School in Fairfax County. “As someone who has [International Baccalaureate] tests coming up in May . . . this is not what I needed.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published guidance Friday for schools on responding to the coronavirus pandemic. The CDC advised widespread school closings only in the case of “substantial community transmission” of the virus.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said school closures would be effective only if students stay at home and do not congregate with one another. She said teen “idleness” is a major concern, and she called on families to help keep their children on course.
The school system has let teens knows about opportunities to volunteer that they can complete remotely, including helping the Smithsonian Institution with transcriptions and working with an organization to create audio books.
Teachers have been instructed to try and engage students remotely in groups so they can socialize in this unexpected academic setting.
“We are very concerned about idleness among our teenagers, so we hope our families are thinking about ways to keep our young people engaged and involved,” Bowser said.
Some community organizations are trying to step in. Jimmie Jenkins — a father in Southeast Washington who operates a basketball league and ManPower DC, an advocacy organization — called a community meeting last week to see what families in the community needed during the closure.
Safety and food, he said, were paramount concerns. He is organizing pop-up distribution centers across Southeast Washington during the closure so families can pick up groceries, toiletries and board games to play with their children.
He has also instructed the coaches in his basketball league to send children inspirational text messages and links to sports videos so they can feel connected to the game.
“We have kids who keep calling, who are asking when we are going to get back in the gym,” Jenkins said. “Not only is it safety for them, but sports are their vehicle, and I know what it is like to have something that pushes you to do right thing when there is all this negativity going around.”
In the Washington region — where a significant portion of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches — students can pick up lunch each day at designated sites. Officials said they selected these sites with Metro accessibility and walkability in mind, and will work to ensure lines and crowds do not form.
“It’s difficult to figure out where the safety net is for these folks, in one of the richest counties in the United States,” said Byron Johns, education chair of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP. “The school meals are important, but so is the housing and the health care and the day care. Everything is fragile.”
Parents said they understand these are unexpected circumstances and do not expect academic plans to be perfect. Still, parents said they are concerned what the shuttering of schools will mean for their children’s academic progress.
Sharese Clayton — a Southeast Washington parent with two daughters — said she is particularly worried about what the closure will mean for her kindergartner, who seems to have found a groove in her schoolwork and was doing advanced work.
Clayton, who owns a trash hauling company with her husband, said she will work with her daughters each day as she sends invoices to clients as part of her job.
“She’s just beginning, and just getting the hang of things, and I’m worried about her getting out of the loop of it,” Clayton said of her daughter, who attends a charter school near their home. “The type of things that she is doing, I want her to stay on that path.”
Once students are in their remote learning routines, Harold McCray Jr. — principal at D.C.’s Stanton Elementary — said administrators at his school will get back to planning. He suspects that even with the take-home packets, students could lose ground in their academics.
He wants to be ready with aggressive academic plans to help students catch up when they return to the classroom. Whenever that may be.
“We can only control the controllables,” McCray said. “The reality is that they are going to have to get up to speed and our job is to make that happen.”