MCPS remote learning plan will improve over time, officials say

MCPS remote learning plan will improve over time, officials say

Second week of online classes begins Monday, will include new lessons

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MCPS employees give an update about the school district's remote learning plan on Saturday.

via MCPS

The first week of online learning for Montgomery County students wasn’t perfect, but few expected it to be.

Last week, instead of congregating in school buildings, students continued to stay home, logging on to laptops, iPads and tablets from across the county to participate in classes.

The shift to remote learning comes amid a nationwide outbreak of COVID-19, the coronavirus, a new disease that has sickened more than 4,000 people in Maryland.

There were hiccups — despite MCPS loaning 45,000 Chromebooks to students, some still didn’t have a device to use. Many experienced technical difficulties or steep learning curves trying to navigate the new online platforms.

On Friday, Zoom, a web video service that teachers are using to hold class meetings, experienced a nationwide outage, leaving many unable to participate.

Still, school district leaders and community members dubbed the week an overall success and said the process will get smoother with time and through trial-and-error.

About 12,000 teachers participated in training to buffer the strain of the change and 120,000 students participated in live classes.

“With some ingenuity, planning and a little bit of duct tape, it looks like we’ve made it through the first week with only a few bumps and bruises,” MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said during a live districtwide video update on Saturday.

Beginning Monday, elementary school students will log in for classes in the morning, wrapping up for the day around 11 a.m., Niki Hazel, associate superintendent in the MCPS office of Curriculum and Instruction Programs, said during the briefing.

Then, MCPS will dismiss for a countywide “lunch break,” during which students can go to one of more than 40 sites to pick up free breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Each school was given some flexibility to build their schedules based on the needs of their community, Hazel said.

Christine Zhu, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, said her school will have first through fourth periods on Tuesdays and Thursdays and fifth through seventh periods on Wednesdays and Fridays, for example. Each school day lasts approximately four hours.

Kevin Lowndes, director of MCPS’ special education department, said families with students in a special education program will be contacted to discuss how the school district will provide therapy services and set or modify educational goals.

Each family’s situation will be different, Lowndes said.

“We’re working extremely hard and I appreciate the patience and understanding our community has given us,” Lowndes said. “Things will be better in two or three weeks than they are today.”

MCPS Chief Technology Officer Pete Cevenini said the school district has designed its online systems, including Zoom, so only students and staff members can log in. This ensures community members can’t discover how to log in anonymously and “post things that aren’t appropriate,” Cevenini said.

There have been reports across the county of intruders disrupting high school and college classes on Zoom and sharing inappropriate words or images. The FBI in Boston issued a warning about the problem, known as “Zoom bombing.”

This week, MCPS plans to distribute WiFi hotspots to families who do not have internet access at home.

Print copies of lessons will be available at meal sites monthly for students who can’t or choose not to use the online platforms.

While “this is a challenge unlike any other,” and the school district works to perfect its processes, MCPS employees said on Saturday, what happens beyond the immediate future remains unclear.

Nobody knows for certain whether students will return to schools before the end of the academic year. MCPS officials haven’t yet detailed a plan for grading policies.

Events like prom and graduation remain as scheduled, but it seems increasingly likely they will be postponed or canceled.
The uncertainty has been hard on Beth Davis’ daughter, Grace, a senior.

“That being said, she is excited about the future and has spent some time over these last three weeks connecting with other students from the college she will attend this fall,” Davis wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat.

Pamela Ruiz, of Rockville, has three children at home, ages 8, 11 and 15. They are technology savvy, Ruiz said, which has helped the transition.

However, it’s difficult to keep the youngest focused throughout the day, and Ruiz worries about the older boys’ lack of social interaction.

“I think the challenge with remote learning will be the lack of structure that school usually provides, and the required change in mindset that home is not just a place to relax, eat and play, but to truly focus on learning,” Ruiz said. “I have found it’s hard to provide that same school structure and environment when I am pulled in other directions at the same time.”

Clarksburg High School senior Zoe Tishaev said she feels the first week of online classes went well. But the variety of online platforms that teachers can use to host classes can be overwhelming, she said, and some students are still coping with the new remote environment.

“I am stressed, as I think we all are,” Tishaev said. “Sometimes I lack motivation to get up and get work done. It’s a very different feeling, being in the comfort of your home, a place we tend to associate with relaxation, and being expected to be as attentive, if not more so, with the unusual distractions, as we are in school.”

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

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For other Bethesda Beat coverage of the coronavirus, click here.

To see a timeline of major coronavirus developments in Maryland and Montgomery County, click here

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