Now in their sixth week of distance learning, students of Frederick County Public Schools have settled into a new reality of logging online and completing assignments virtually for their teachers.
Superintendent Terry Alban explained, though that this new reality has not come without its own set of challenges and needs.
The school system had to quickly find a balance in the amount of work students were assigned and how much time they should spend on the computer. Families and teachers felt lots of angst and uncertainty.
“In those first couple of weeks there were a lot of parents trying to figure out how to navigate this and then what I was hearing from teachers was just incredible stress because you’re trying to do this and yet you’ve also got your own children who need to do distance learning,” she said.
The pressure seems to have quieted down, Alban said, which she attributed to people settling into routines.
As of May 1, Alban said more than 99 percent of FCPS students have connected to digital learning in some form. Others are completing paper packets, which are picked up regularly from their schools.
“Now, you can connect and you can connect regularly are two different things,” Alban said, which is why FCPS decided to make classes for the fourth academic quarter for this school year, which began on April 14, pass or incomplete.
Instead of receiving a letter grade, students will simply either pass the class or not. Alban said the decision was made to help students who may be struggling with more personal matters during this time.
“We recognize families are under a lot of stress. We don’t know what individual situations may be,” Alban said. “So, we don’t want a child to be penalized or to fail because of circumstances they have no control over.”
High schoolers who are applying to colleges and need letter grades in order to have an accurate GPA can opt-out of the pass or incomplete grading system.
FCPS is also piloting the use of video conferencing in the Tuscarora feeder pattern which Alban said she hopes will help bring back some sense of normalcy since it will allow students to see their friends and teacher.
Besides trying to get students online, Alban said the transition to distance learning has shone a light on some equity issues that exist with some student populations such as English Language Learner (ELL) students.
“Some of their parents, who don’t have facility with the language are going to find it more challenging to support their child than parents who are literate and fluent in English,” Alban said.
Therefore, staff has been working to provide as much additional resources and support to these students as possible.
Navigating the realm of special education has also been difficult. Individualized Education Plans have had to be revised and families have had to meet with special education instructional assistants virtually.
Providing services such as physical and occupational therapy that students would normally receive in school are difficult to deliver remotely, but Alban said they are using a software that allows for tele-therapy so that students can continue to be supported in some way.
Planning for the future
With these systems and changes in place, one of Alban’s biggest priorities is figuring out graduations for the class of 2020.
The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) gave local superintendents and school boards the authority to decide how to celebrate their seniors. The only requirement is that any celebration or ceremony is in compliance with the governor’s executive orders.
FCPS formed a committee to examine alternate ways to hold graduations. Some suggested delaying commencement ceremonies until the summer or fall, but Alban said that is difficult for a number of reasons.
One, it is unclear what restrictions on social gatherings will be in place at that time, and two, not all students may be able to attend.
“If you delay ... you have children who go into the military who will be gone who wouldn’t be able to participate or if they’re off to college,” Alban said. “So, there are a lot of different pieces to weigh in ... we’re exploring as many options as possible.”
FCPS staff are also extensively planning for what the school day might look like if students return to buildings in the fall and what extra needs students might have.
“We know we’re going to have to prepare for ... the additional trauma that a lot of our kids may have experienced through this time,” Alban said. “If someone in your family has gotten ill ... loss of jobs ... I think there are a lot of ramifications of this that are going to play out in a variety of ways.”
State Schools Superintendent Karen Salmon announced Wednesday that all Maryland public schools would remain closed for the remainder of the academic year and that reopening of school buildings would most likely occur during stages two or three of the governor’s recovery plan.
MSDE has also published a handbook titled “Maryland Together: Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education” which includes guidance on how public schools will move forward and possible options for reopening, such as having students attend school different days of the week or doing a grade-based phase-in.
Alban said they are planning for multiple scenarios based on what stage of the recovery plan the state is in at the time. FCPS will also be expected to be ready to transition quickly back to distance learning if a second wave of the virus hits in the fall — as some are expecting.
MSDE is still requiring school districts to complete 180 days of instruction, so the district needs to determine what to do about the two weeks in March when students didn’t have classes while FCPS transitioned to virtual learning.
Salmon, however, was recently given authority by the state Board of Education to waive five instructional days for school systems that request it.
If FCPS asks for the waiver, that would leave the school system with five days to make up — one snow day that was used earlier in the year and four days from the closure.
Since the primary elections in Maryland were postponed, Alban said they took advantage of using that day in April for instruction, therefore leaving them with one less day to make up. The four remaining days would be treated like snow days and be tacked on to the end of the year.
FCPS also recently announced that May 22 would be the last day of class for high school seniors.
As the school year winds down, Alban said more than anything, the focus is to continue operating as normally as possible in order to continue serving students.
“Business as usual has to go on even though it’s an unusual situation,” she said.