September-October 2020 | Parenting

From a distance

Montgomery County Public Schools scrambled to provide remote learning last spring when the pandemic forced schools to close. With instruction continuing online this fall, many question whether the district can meet the challenge.

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Photo by Deb Lindsey

Kensington parents Melinda Davey and Cam Uecker are crossing their fingers that Montgomery County Public Schools will deliver on its promise to provide robust remote learning this fall. But recalling the uneven experiences of their three kids last spring, they aren’t so sure. “They didn’t retain anything in the spring, especially for math,” Davey says of rising sixth-grader Giselle and eighth-grade twins Nate and Samaya. “It was too hard, there was so much distraction,” Uecker agreed.

During the summer, the kids kept busy with online courses and activities to help them catch up, Davey says. Nate, who along with Samaya attends Parkland Middle School in Rockville, participated in math and language arts classes offered through the George B. Thomas Learning Academy, a nonprofit that works in partnership with MCPS. Giselle and Samaya took math classes and participated in summer camps featuring such topics as the Harry Potter books and how to prepare for a mock trial through Varsity Tutors, a free online service.

With about a month to go before Aug. 31, the first day of school, the family was anxiously waiting to hear more from MCPS. District officials were expected to update the school board in early August about their plans to deliver instruction entirely remotely for the fall semester after pivoting in late July from a proposal to start online and then rotate students into schools in phases. There’d been no word yet from Newport Mill Middle School in Kensington about orientation activities for Giselle, who’d been looking forward to starting middle school.

Like many other MCPS parents, Davey and Uecker long for more live instruction, especially at the middle school level, and ways for students and teachers to better connect with each other. “I want there to be actual classroom teaching,” Davey says.

Last spring, the family discovered that the level of effort tended to vary from teacher to teacher. The staff at Rock View Elementary School in Kensington, where Giselle was a fifth-grader, worked to engage families from the moment distance learning began in late March. “Their principal was emailing every day, the teachers were emailing,” Davey says, noting that Principal Kris Alexander called Giselle on her birthday. The experience of the twins with their middle school teachers was “a bit helter-skelter,” says Uecker, who is in charge of the kids’ schooling and works remotely as an architect while Davey works as a pediatric oncology nurse at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. “They didn’t know where to turn in assignments,” he says. “In a way, it helped our kids learn some extra skills. They had to follow up with their teachers a lot. They had to email them and say, ‘Did you get this?’ ”

The parents are hoping schools will use a model similar to what Nate experienced with his summer classes, in which the teacher and students would start with a Zoom class meeting and then break into smaller groups of about half a dozen kids, monitored by teachers, to work on problems independently or together. “At least they can form some sort of relationship with people, even if it’s on Zoom,” Davey says.

Parents aren’t the only ones worried about whether students can build connections through computer screens. Last spring, teachers and students had the advantage of having met in class and developed relationships before the switch to remote learning. “So much of the beginning of the year is getting to know the kids, their style and who they are,” says Hunter Hogewood, a social studies teacher at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. “Trying to do that over Zoom is going to be really, really hard.”

MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith sat at his desk in his otherwise empty office at MCPS headquarters in Rockville during a late-May video conference with administrators and a reporter, recalling a “nasty” email he received the night before from a parent who complained that the MCPS remote learning program was “just not good enough.”

“The fact is, he’s right—it’s not good enough,” Smith said. “So our goal has to be to build a system based on everything we’ve learned this spring, everything that everyone is learning together across the state, the nation, and then just start it and then be willing to revise it.”

When the state announced March 12 that schools would close March 16 for two weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, no one knew their doors would not open again for the rest of the school year. MCPS learned the news of the emergency closing the day of Gov. Larry Hogan’s press conference, according to school board President Shebra Evans of Silver Spring. County families and teachers were expecting students to return to the classroom once the period ended, although

Smith says MCPS administrators began anticipating the closure could be extended as the pandemic gripped the region.
Teachers were unsure what to do, says Chris Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the union that represents the county’s public school teachers. He told them to bring class materials home because no one could say at that point how long the closure would last. “You go to school after that announcement, really unprecedented, and you sit with your kids in your morning circle or whatever and you go, ‘So here’s what this means,’ ” he says. “You’re trying to make sense of something which frankly you aren’t making much sense of.”

During the week of March 23, the district began distributing meals at sites around the county for kids who could no longer count on getting food at school. On March 25, the state extended school closures for another month. Like districts across the country, MCPS had begun pivoting toward remote learning. Figuring out how to transition classes from in-person to online for roughly 166,000 students in pre-K through 12th grade—while continuing to provide services for those with disabilities and learning and language issues—was like “trying to build a plane while flying it,” several educators say. While MCPS tackled how to deliver instruction remotely, families and staff were dealing with other issues, including food and financial insecurity, health problems, the need for child care, worries about the impact of isolation, and the lack of access to technology.

The father of Nate and Samaya Uecker, who are pictured at home in Kensington, says the twins’ experience with their teachers was “a bit helter-skelter.” Photo by Deb Lindsey

On March 26, MCPS began distributing laptops to students who needed them. Throughout the spring, the school system distributed more than 70,000 Chromebooks and about 5,000 Wi-Fi devices to families, officials say. MCPS committed to making sure that every student who needed a laptop and device received one. According to MCPS, $16.4 million of the $24.8 million of the district’s federal coronavirus relief money would be spent to improve technology access for students and another $4.6 million would pay for providing staff training on the use of technology for remote learning.

Stunned by the growing possibility that teachers and students might not see each other in a classroom again that school year, educators and families had to figure out how to connect while also dealing with the transition of working from home. “We’re not used to that goodbye, so to speak, that physical goodbye, in March,” Lloyd says. “We’re used to that in June: last day of school you had your party, kids get on the bus and we all head out. We know that routine. So it was very traumatic because it was a very abrupt shift.”

The district’s digital learning environment, myMCPS Classroom, allowed teachers to post information about courses and grades and to communicate with students and parents; schools also used other online platforms. Though district officials and the board had talked in the past about the possibility of increasing access to courses by offering them online, “we weren’t there” when the pandemic hit, board member Pat O’Neill of Bethesda says.

Still, teachers were able to use a secure platform and meals were distributed to those who needed them, Evans says. “We could not have anticipated that it would be the way that it was, and so it was never intended for us to be able to deliver a full day of instruction to our students the same way we would deliver it inside of schools,” she says.

MCPS needed to keep kids connected to school even though its educators’ expertise at using technology for online learning varied greatly “because we’re a face-to-face organization,” Smith says. The school system sent home “tens of thousands” of packets of instruction and posted lessons online to keep kids engaged “while everyone was trying to figure out what was going to happen next,” Smith says. The district soon began posting online training sessions to show educators how to teach the math and English language arts curriculum remotely.

At each school, staff sent out emails and text messages, and got on the phone to students and families to make sure they had what was needed. “It was a herculean task. We had everybody on board,” says Damon Monteleone, principal of the 2,500-student Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. “We divided up our secretarial staff, our security, anybody who was not a teacher. We assigned each of them like a caseload of kids—to call the kid, call the parent, find out what’s going on. We literally hit every single person.”

At Eastern Middle School, Principal Matt Johnson says communication, even in normal times, is “always an issue” with families through traditional means such as ConnectED, the school district’s phone announcement system. About 51% of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals (FARMS), a measure of poverty, at the Silver Spring school. After the switch to distance learning, administrators asked teachers to report any students they hadn’t yet seen online. “We immediately called all those families,” which resulted in more families requesting Chromebooks, Johnson says. “We had a lot of families that I truly believe did not know what was happening.”

From March 30 through May 18, MCPS rolled out a three-phase Continuity of Learning plan that eventually encompassed live and recorded class lessons delivered through Zoom and the learning platforms used by the school system. Elementary school students were supposed to log into live math sessions, mostly 30 to 40 minutes long, with their teachers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and English language arts lessons on Tuesday and Thursday; teachers also held online “office hours” after class so students and parents could ask questions and get help. Prerecorded art, music and physical education lessons were offered every other week. Teachers had the option of recording classes for middle and high school students to provide accessibility and avoid conflicting class schedules, and also held office hours. Some teachers posted lessons recorded by colleagues, which some families complained decreased the connection between students and their teachers. Some students say they never saw their teachers live online after schools closed in March.

The district’s approach was to “do no harm,” a philosophy adopted by school districts nationwide as they confronted the unprecedented health and economic crises. Officials were mindful of the emotional toll on students who would miss out on traditional rites of passage such as the fifth grade “clap out,” when younger elementary students cheer on their older peers; eighth grade promotion ceremonies; and high school senior sports nights, proms and graduations. Expectations for student participation and teacher performance were not as rigorous as in school, according to administrators. Students weren’t required to attend Zoom classes, didn’t have to turn on computer cameras for privacy reasons, and, instead of grades, would receive a “pass” or “incomplete” for the fourth quarter—a way to ensure that all students were treated equitably. High school students who passed a course could choose to receive a letter grade for the semester; those who chose the letter grade received one letter higher than their third-marking period grade.

An agreement between MCPS and the teachers union called for teachers to spend a maximum of four hours per school day providing direct instruction that was live or recorded, and in participating in such activities as virtual office hours with students and parents, professional development and staff meetings. The remaining four hours were to be dedicated to planning. The schedule helped “strike a balance” for teachers, who needed more time to plan for remote learning and had their own family needs to consider, Lloyd says. “Teachers just cannot be available 18 hours a day to answer email and be available to answer questions,” he says. The agreement spelled out steps for completing ongoing teacher evaluations, but noted that no formal observations would be conducted during the period of remote learning.

As the spring progressed, MCPS posted science lessons, and middle and high school teachers began posting assignments for the week on Monday, which allowed students to self-schedule. According to MCPS, teachers began assigning books for students at different reading levels, and technology improvements allowed students to submit homework electronically rather than having to print out assignments and hold them up to their computer’s camera or scan and email them.
Though many parents applauded the school system’s efforts, others were frustrated, complaining there was too little instruction time, not enough academic rigor, no accountability, uneven delivery of instruction for older students, poor communication, and not enough support for kids with special needs or those who spoke other languages. Stuck at home and juggling work responsibilities with child care, some parents yearned for a longer school day and more engagement for their kids, while others complained about ongoing changes in the remote learning program. “What else are they going to throw at us and ask of us?” one parent wrote on Facebook in late April after receiving an MCPS email.

Cynthia Simonson, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, says parents of middle and high school students, in particular, wanted more clarity from teachers. Some schools were well-organized, clearly communicating expectations and which online platform to use, she says. At the high school level, parents were “sort of meandering in the fog,” unsure of what each teacher was doing and how to communicate. The ambiguity was “so unsettling for many parents, and mainly because they’re having to trust the kids are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. By the time they found out that they’re not, weeks and weeks could have gone by,” Simonson says.

Hunter Hogewood, who heads the social studies department at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, teaches a class from home via Zoom. Courtesy photo

MCPS was not alone in its struggles. A spring survey of 477 public school systems by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that just “one in three districts expect teachers to provide instruction, track student engagement, or monitor academic progress for all students.” In nearby Fairfax County, schools didn’t begin distance learning until mid-April, but the district was forced to cancel virtual instruction twice in one week because of technical problems and inappropriate online behavior, according to published reports. Early on, MCPS experienced some issues with others hacking into Zoom sessions, but quickly made online platforms more secure, Evans says.

The change in the MCPS grading policy inflamed some parents and educators who say older students lost their motivation. “Kids very quickly got the message: You don’t have to do this,” says one high school teacher who didn’t want to be identified. “The grading is ridiculous,” adds Davey, the Kensington parent. “How are you proving anything? Everyone gets throwaway A’s and B’s.”
Evans says the board “did the right thing” in protecting students facing hardships at home from being penalized for issues beyond their control.

Shortly after the switch to online learning, English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher Andrea Littell was on the phone, trying to help a Spanish-speaking first grader with limited English figure out how to access his teacher’s website. His mom couldn’t help because she doesn’t speak English.

“He doesn’t really know his letters, so I was trying to get him to type in these things on his computer, and I’d say something like, ‘Now type the letter “u” ’ and he’d say, ‘I don’t know that letter,’ ” says Littell, who teaches children from a range of countries, including Honduras, Cameroon and Ethiopia, at Silver Spring’s Woodlin Elementary School. She says she told the boy to “look at your keyboard, find the number 7 and underneath the 7 you’ll see a letter that looks like an upside down ‘n’. Push that letter.”

Even after 80 minutes, “we weren’t actually able to figure out how to get him to his teacher’s page on myMCPS and then get him to the [lessons],” Littell says. “It’s really difficult for kids who aren’t great readers and don’t have a whole lot of family support.”

The digital divide exposed by the pandemic also thrust existing inequities into the spotlight, educators and advocates for minority and vulnerable students say. According to MCPS data for the 2019-2020 school year, nearly 34% of students were eligible for FARMS, just over 18% were eligible for English Speakers of Other Languages services, and nearly 12% were special education students. While students in wealthier communities most likely could rely on parents to help with online learning, disadvantaged students often were dealing with crowded living conditions, trauma, and a lack of support from parents who did not have the time or education to help them with schoolwork and accessing technology, says Diego Uriburu, the executive director of Identity, a Gaithersburg nonprofit serving Latino youths in the county, and a member of The Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence, an organization of community advocacy groups. “All kids suffer from this, but some suffer more,” he says.

MCPS families at all economic levels struggled to balance working from home with making sure their children participated in online learning. Lloyd says he often heard “heartbreaking stories” from teachers about grandparents who stepped in to help with child care. “Teachers would have conversations with these grandparents who would just be, after days of trying to navigate this, would be just at their breaking point—they’d be crying,” Lloyd says.

Stanford University juniors Gunguk Kim and Robert Ross found a “striking difference” in how students were coping with remote learning when they interviewed several freshmen at Silver Spring’s James Hubert Blake High School, Kim’s alma mater, during the spring for a course project. One boy said it was difficult to do his schoolwork because he was caring for his baby brother while his mother, who had to close her cafe, worked as a maid and his older sister, a junior in an International Baccalaureate program, did her classwork, according to a Zoom interview shared with Bethesda Magazine. Money was so tight that the boy was trying to sell some of his sneakers and other items to help pay the rent. His mother had been too embarrassed to ask for more than one Chromebook for her children, so he shared the MCPS laptop with his sister and also used the family’s older, slower model.

“I can’t do work when a baby is crying in my room. I can’t do it,” he said during the interview. A self-described straight-A student, he would often ask teachers for help while in school, but didn’t feel comfortable attending Zoom office hours. “I don’t want to have my little brother screaming on Zoom meetings,” he said.
Silver Spring parent Elizabeth Wenk says she and her husband relied on their two middle schoolers and their au pair to help their 6-year-old twin kindergartners while they were working. The family would sit down at 8 p.m. to plot the next day’s schedule on a large whiteboard, each of them adopting their own scheduling style. Eighth grader Olivia wrote the most detailed schedule, including times for eating breakfast, running, Zoom classes and walking the family’s dogs. “We tried to do everything,” Wenk says. “Then we realized it’s so unrealistic that we’re going to get everything done and keep our jobs and keep our sanity.”

Like other educators at home with their kids, North Bethesda Middle School math teacher Amy Watkins had to teach while also caring for her infant and 5-year-old sons. Her older son frequently wanted to talk to her students while she was teaching. Often, her baby’s nap schedule was at odds with her classes. During one class in late May, “he was really fussy, he was crying and my husband was on a phone call, so I’m like, I can’t do this,” she recalls. “I had to kill the call and tell my kids, ‘I’m sorry. I’ll meet with you on Friday.’ ”

School administrators worried about burnout among staff members. “Very few of us have ever been trained on how to teach kids on distance learning,” Lloyd says. “That was a big shock to people.” Many MCPS teachers are women—80% of the union membership is female—and have kids of their own, so their “entire homelife shifted,” he says. Special educators, in particular, were “really struggling” as they spent hours on the phone with families and tried to keep up with required paperwork.

Teachers often communicated with students long after classes ended, answering emails, texts and phone calls at all times of the day. Stacy Farrar, a physical education teacher who also provides academic support for students at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, says one student texted her on a Friday night to ask if she could call because she was having trouble trying to submit an application to Montgomery College and did not have a computer at home.

Farrar filled out the application online as the student spoke. Then she printed the application, put it in an envelope addressed to the student and explained to the teen how to address and stamp a new envelope for the application once it arrived. “I said, ‘I’m sending this to you, and when you get it, you’re going to sign it and you’re going to put it in the other envelope and send it in,’ ” Farrar says. She also contacted the school secretary, who happened to be online that night, to arrange for the girl to pick up a laptop at school. “Eight o’clock Friday night was when she was finally ready for help, so yeah, I’m gonna do it,” Farrar says. “I measured that call as a success.”

By June, B-CC’s Hogewood was used to seeing a screen full of small black boxes, each bearing the name of one of his students, during his Zoom classes. When he called on a student, he occasionally had to wait for a response, and he’d wonder whether the student was occupied with a cellphone or away from the computer. “The biggest frustration I hear from teachers is the kids don’t turn on their cameras. You’re talking to a bunch of little black boxes,” says Hogewood, who heads the social studies department. “In our profession, so much of what we do is the interplay and the interaction, reading facial expressions, body language. It’s really hard, particularly if kids don’t have their cameras on.”

As the spring progressed, teachers began to see older students lose interest. “What happened was there was less and less engagement of students in their classes the longer this went,” Monteleone says. “The nature of the grading policy really [was] if you got an ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’ third quarter, there actually wasn’t a whole lot they had to do fourth quarter to earn credit.”

Courtesy photo

On a Friday morning in early May, Joe Shashaty places a laptop on the coffee table in the living room of his Silver Spring home and positions a small red plastic chair in preparation for math classes for his kindergartner and second grader. He’s in charge of helping his sons because his job as a management and technology consultant is more flexible than that of his wife, Ellen Mowry, a neurologist and professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Around 10 a.m., the second grader signs on to his class, at ease with the technology like most kids his age. “I go to Google Classroom and click the link and ta-da!” he says as the screen fills with a gallery of his peers. One classmate appears upside down for the entire lesson. “It’s a little more distractive because everybody is making all these noises and I can’t really hear the teacher as well,” he says.

After the classes end, the official school day is over for both boys. There is homework to do, but the rest of the day yawns ahead. Shashaty says he is overwhelmed at times by his sons’ need for his attention. For the first month, his kindergartner had trouble paying attention during the Zoom class. “He would want to come over and snuggle with me,” Shashaty says. “There have been a few days where the neediness is so constant and so loud it really drives you a little bonkers.”

While parents longed for more instruction time, those with older students, especially those in middle school, say the expectation that their children were capable of working independently was unrealistic. Bethesda parent Joshua Starr, a former MCPS superintendent, says the structure of in-person classes at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School had helped keep his youngest son on track. “Sixth grade boys do not have great executive functioning skills to begin with, and the way things are structured now, you really have to do it on your own and it’s been really hard,” Starr says. “We really had to buckle down with him and create a schedule.”

Other students discovered that they enjoy the independence of distance learning; for those dealing with anxiety or other issues, it’s also proved to be a better fit, some students and parents say. Bethesda parent Tom Manatos says his oldest son, a rising fourth grader with dyslexia, finds it easier to learn at home with the help of teachers and support staff at Burning Tree Elementary School. “There are less distractions. He can focus. He does a Zoom with his reading specialist at school twice a week, extra time with his teacher twice a week, as well,” Manatos says. “Both of them have remarked how [much] more dialed in he is to their engagement because of the lack of distraction.”

Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with Eastern Middle School’s eagle-head logo, sixth grade Assistant Principal Matthew Kerwin stands in front of a mustard-yellow hallway locker in a short video posted on the school’s website. “Today I’m going to show you how to open a locker,” he says. “One of the things our new sixth graders are most excited about when they come to middle school is having a locker of their own.”

The video and another of a virtual building tour are part of the school’s online orientation for incoming sixth graders. Like some other schools, Eastern was also scheduling virtual “meet and greets” with staff and students during the summer. Starting in early August, MCPS was offering Kindergarten Jumpstart, a program of 20 days of online activities. Kindergartners have been “told for the last couple of years they’re going to go to school, and school is this thing in their head, and all of a sudden school as we knew it is going to change,” says Janet Wilson, head of the MCPS Office of Teaching, Learning and Schools.

The district’s plans for summer school and fall options addressed the need to significantly increase rigor and the amount of instruction, according to officials. MCPS was moving to one online platform, myMCPS Classroom, to reduce confusion and technical issues. During the summer, schools offered their own classes, additional MCPS offerings, and others from outside partners—a total of nearly 650 options—in an effort to help students catch up in math and language arts and to provide enrichment opportunities. Enrichment options included classes in songwriting and urban dance offered by Strathmore, and cooking classes offered by Manna Food Center. As of June 29, nearly 14,400 students were enrolled.

On July 11, MCPS announced that schools would begin the year online, with plans to eventually rotate students back into buildings two days a week in a three-phase approach as health conditions allowed. Officials were planning a full day of remote instruction, incorporating live and recorded sessions, according to Wilson. Whether learning in person or remotely, attendance would be mandatory, as required by the state, and the district’s traditional grading system would be in effect, officials said. Students would be assessed to determine learning loss. During the summer, educators were to participate in training to increase their skills at teaching remotely, including how to use video conferencing and other tools to enhance student engagement. “No matter what we do, some groups are going to be unhappy,” O’Neill says. “We’ve got to have our act together, whatever we’re doing.”

The district previewed a full-day remote learning schedule at its two elementary schools with extended-year programs, Roscoe R. Nix in Silver Spring and Arcola in Wheaton, during their six-week programs in July and August. At Nix, which serves students in pre-K through second grade, teachers spent time getting to know their students through class meetings, and kindergarten teachers met their new pupils through one-on-one Zoom visits, according to Principal Annette
Ffolkes. The full-day schedule began with a class meeting involving activities to help students process their emotions about not being in school. About four hours of live instruction, including hourlong classes with small group instruction for math and language arts in Zoom breakout rooms, and lessons in science, art, music and physical education, filled out the schedule—satisfying requests for a longer instructional day, Ffolkes says. “Parents appreciated having someone actually instructing students,” she says.

On July 21, MCPS reversed course, announcing it was scrapping its hybrid learning plan and would deliver instruction remotely for the fall semester, after the number of coronavirus cases in the county increased, more parents and teachers protested that proposed safety measures were inadequate, and the county’s top health official said he wouldn’t recommend in-person instruction in schools “at this time.” The district’s decision—echoing those of school systems in neighboring Fairfax and Prince George’s counties—sent parents scrambling to figure out how to handle at least another five months of remote learning.

For parent Ellen Mowry, the decision provided the certainty that was lacking in the hybrid model, in which she could envision the ongoing disruption of having to keep a child home because of a runny nose or having a school close because of an outbreak. Even before the MCPS announcement, she and her husband had been considering whether to ask a few families if they’d like to form a “remote learning pod” that could rotate between their homes, allowing kids to socialize while doing their own schoolwork and giving parents a break.

As a physician, Mowry was ever mindful of the possible health risks of creating such a group—she’d begun writing a list of rules to present to families about social distancing and reducing outside exposures. But, like other parents and educators, she also worried about the long-term impact on her young sons of a continuing lack of socialization. “It’s all a gamble. You’re always calculating the risk-benefit ratio,” she says. “Everything we do is a risk.”

Julie Rasicot, a former deputy editor of the magazine, lives in Silver Spring.

Nela Sahady, a rising sophomore at Connelly School of the Holy Child, which was still deciding on plans for the start of this school year as of press time.

The Plans at Private Schools

Editor’s Note: On July 31, Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County’s health officer, announced that private schools in the county were prohibited from having in-person instruction until at least Oct. 1. An Aug. 3 order by Gov. Larry Hogan banned blanket private school closures in the state. A second order by Gayles on Aug. 5 prohibited the opening of nonpublic schools. He rescinded that order on Aug. 7, and instead advised nonpublic schools to not reopen for in-person instruction. At press time, some schools had announced plans and others were still formulating them.

Last spring, Abigail Maloney would get dressed, brush her hair and sit at a desk in her Kensington home before starting online classes at 8:30 a.m. Then a junior at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, she says she tried to do her best with a heavy load of classes.

“I kept my camera on to make eye contact with the teacher and nod and show that I was engaged,” says the 17-year-old, who sometimes put her dog Gizmo, a shih tzu, in front of the camera to liven things up. Abigail says she learned to be productive in the new setting and did well on her first Advanced Placement test in May, but missed the face-to-face connections.

The private school’s plans for this school year were not set at press time. One plan that the school considered was to have half of the students come to the building for two weeks of in-person instruction, then work from home remotely for two weeks. Dividing the students alphabetically splits her friend group, but Abigail says she was happy about the prospect of going back to school in person.

Holy Child administrators gathered information over the summer from experts about safety protocols and surveyed parents, says Head of School Shannon Gomez.

“We are small and nimble enough to know what the girls need and how to give it to them,” says Gomez of the school of about 360 students in grades 6 to 12. “This has required more creativity and planning, and our people are channeling both.”

Pivoting and adapting are words many private school administrators have used to describe their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, online learning wasn’t a hurdle but more of a speed bump to continuous education when schools closed their buildings in the spring. Smaller class sizes, existing technology and more resources helped give some private schools a jump on the public school system in the transition to distance learning. As the situation evolved over the summer, private schools considered a variety of reopening scenarios. Some announced hybrid learning plans while acknowledging they may have to shift gears as the school year progresses if the virus numbers spike.

At The Siena School in Silver Spring, a multisensory learning approach for students in grades 4 to 12 lent itself well to Zoom and Google Suite platforms to engage students in the spring, according to Director of Admissions Bekah Atkinson. Each of the school’s 134 students had a Chromebook from the school and adequate Internet access. Some online classes included jumping jacks (students answered math questions by doing the corresponding number of jumps, or just did the exercise while giving an answer) and guest speakers, such as a scientist or a comedian, to keep engagement high. Siena is sticking with all-virtual learning at the start of school.

Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda used Chromebooks, ThinkPads and MacBooks already provided by the school to students to provide instruction in real time through Google Meet last spring. Director of Marketing and Communications Connie Mitchell says student attendance was recorded, assignments were graded and performance was assessed. The spring was a “learning lab” for teachers, and professional development was offered over the summer to improve instruction online, she says. For this school year, the private Catholic school is starting virtually with limited in-person on-campus activities through early October. “We know on-campus learning is ideal for good interaction and learning engagement, but we can’t start it right away because we need to get our sea legs a little bit,” Mitchell says.

As the Academy of the Holy Cross shifted to remote instruction in the spring, Principal John Sullivan says the Kensington high school’s teachers and students were held to the same standards with the online learning platform as they were for in-person schooling. That meant the grading policy stayed in place. The learning environment had already been built upon a student portal that included assignments, instruction and study guides, so students and teachers were familiar with engaging in classwork remotely (the e-learning system had been used in the past for snow days). The school did not miss any instructional days due to the pandemic. Holy Cross announced on Aug. 7 that this school year students will have remote learning through Oct. 1. The school will later reassess to determine if and when it could switch to a hybrid learning system.

When it became clear that buildings would be shuttered for some time in the spring, Landon School in Bethesda had to build a distance learning program from the ground up, says Assistant Headmaster Charles Franklin. “Certainly as a school we have made a large leap forward in the use of educational technology tools at our disposal,” Franklin says. “I also think all of us will have grown in our abilities to be flexible and creative, which will stick with us in our classrooms moving forward.” At press time, Landon had not announced plans for this school year.

The Norwood School in Bethesda didn’t have a comprehensive online learning plan when the pandemic first hit, but quickly switched to distance learning on March 31. Using Microsoft Teams and Zoom, students had a hybrid of live and prerecorded lessons and assignments. At press time, the school was still considering options for the fall; it will likely adjust its online delivery to more real-time instruction after discovering it was a lot of work for the parents to monitor the lessons, especially with younger students, according to Matthew Gould, head of school.

At the McLean School in Potomac, students as young as kindergarten already had technology in their hands and the school was teaching cyber citizenship before the pandemic hit. It was that familiarity that helped the 454-member student body gear up fast for the online transition in the spring, according to Head of School Michael Saxenian. The private school had not announced plans for this school year at press time.

In general, private schools are in a better position than public schools because administrators don’t have to deal with the logistics of large classes, multiple buildings, buses and technology shortages, says Danny Vogelman, head of Washington Episcopal School in Bethesda. WES closed school for a week before and after spring break to build its distance learning program, which launched on March 31. The process was tweaked in the first week at parents’ request to start later in the day so as to better fit class requirements into a working parent’s day.

At WES, nursery school and pre-K students will start on campus this year, while the rest of the school will be all virtual. The plan is to have a phased-in opening with the goal of eventually having all 280 students in preschool through eighth grade back. “All of this is subject to change at any time,” Vogelman says. “Because of our size, we can have all students on campus under CDC guidelines, but we are choosing to slow down. We want to be careful in an abundance of caution.”

Since there is a possibility that students will move back and forth from in-person to distance learning in a hybrid system, Vogelman says once students are back in the building there will be more livestreaming of classes to keep the experience consistent.

“All these things we’ve learned, we will find opportunities to apply them in the future certainly. However, it is taking a toll,” Vogelman says. “Getting ready for this school year has been extraordinarily challenging because you are not sure what you are getting ready for.”

—Krista Brick and Caralee Adams