2020 | Coronavirus

Updated: MCPS details plan to distribute laptops to students during school closures

Online learning begins Monday

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This story was updated at 9 p.m. March 25, 2020, to add information released by MCPS that was not previously available.

Within hours of an announcement that Maryland schools will remain closed until at least the end of April, Montgomery County education leaders released information about how students could get a laptop to participate in remote classes.

On Wednesday morning, state Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon extended an ongoing two-week closure of all K-12 schools another four weeks, through April 24. The closures are part of a comprehensive plan to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, which, in Maryland, has sickened more than 400 and killed four.

In a message Wednesday night, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith wrote that students will be required to sign on to classes on some days previously scheduled for spring break. Classes will be held April 6 to 8. There will not be classes April 9 to 13.

MCPS last week said spring break would not be affected by the school closures and would remain unchanged.

“We understand that this is different from what was originally announced,” Smith wrote. “Please understand that this is a rapidly evolving situation and school districts across the nation are working hard to find ways to maximize opportunities to provide students with instruction in light of these emergency closures.”

While some states have halted instruction completely until school buildings reopen, Maryland schools plan to continue teaching. In MCPS, the pivot to online classes will happen Monday.

The transition to remote learning is a herculean task that, under normal circumstances, would likely take years to complete. Now, school districts are forced to make the switch on the fly, developing plans for the regular student, as well as opportunities for students without internet access and students with disabilities.

Beginning Thursday, MCPS will distribute laptops to students who don’t have access to one at home. There is a “limited supply,” according to MCPS. Some WiFi hotspots are available for students without internet access, but those will be distributed at a later date.

Students or their guardians must show a student ID to receive a computer, according to a message from MCPS.

High school students can pick up laptops from their school between 8 and 11:15 a.m. Thursday, and pick-up times are scheduled at various elementary schools on Thursday and Friday. Middle school students are supposed to pick up computers from the elementary school closest to their home.

The laptop pick-up schedule can be found here.

Smith’s message Wednesday night said the first week of online classes will mostly be geared toward helping students get acclimated with the new system. Students will be expected to finish assignments from the third quarter and complete tutorials about the online learning platform.

More information will be released Friday, including information for students with special needs and English language learners, Smith wrote.

Some community members have been critical of MCPS on social media for not having a comprehensive plan immediately ready for release after Salmon’s Wednesday announcement.

Cynthia Simonson, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, however, lauded MCPS’ efforts to gather feedback from teachers and community members.

In a message to MCCPTA members, Simonson wrote that the plan puts students first and, while it won’t be perfect, it will set a good foundation to help students continue learning.

In her sign-off, Simonson urged compassion and understanding, echoing a sentiment from local and state leaders in recent weeks.

And teachers have been actively working to comply.

During the week schools have been closed, teachers across the county have gone the extra mile to stay engaged with students.

On Wednesday morning, for example, some Richard Montgomery High School teachers drove through students’ neighborhoods, honking their car horns and waving to students. James Hubert Blake High School Principal Bob Sinclair hosted a “virtual town hall” in which students could phone in or video chat to catch up with staff members and friends.

Many schools are hosting a virtual spirit week, with daily themes to promote physical activity, well-being and school pride.

In a video message Wednesday afternoon, Smith acknowledged that the sudden change in learning has been stressful for MCPS employees and students, but said he’s encouraged that everyone is working together to “deal with the chaos and unknowns.”

“We know the state superintendent’s decision to extend the closure is hard for our families, community, but especially for our students, school is at the heart of the county and community,” Smith said. “However, this is the right decision to ensure everyone’s safety as we combat the spread of COVID-19. … Please know we are all in this together and we can do this together if we are committed to helping one another … on behalf of our students.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com