The classroom next door was getting rowdy, but Pam Adams-Campbell didn’t seem to notice.
She smiled, alone in her small office. Her eyes were fixed on the computer monitor in front of her, balanced on top of a thick literature and composition textbook. A student was reading her — and the other members of his virtual creative writing class — a scary story.
“The chat’s going crazy!” Campbell exclaimed when the boy was finished. It had been an eerie tale, involving a small child, a locked basement and a message written in blood. His classmates had flooded the Google Meet with messages of encouragement as he read, praising his use of imagery and suspense.
“I’ve never written a scary story before,” the boy said, barely-concealed pride in his voice.
In a traditional classroom setting, he might well have been too nervous to share. And many of his classmates probably wouldn’t have raised their hands to offer him compliments, Adams-Campbell guesses.
Almost 1,200 students across Frederick County Public Schools are enrolled in the system’s new Blended Virtual Program this year. Their teachers are scattered across the county, camped out in home offices, vacant classrooms and colorfully decorated storage closets.
Despite the logistical challenges these instructors face, after a year and a half of practice, they feel at ease teaching to a screen full of students they’ve never met. And they hope the program — thrown together this past summer — will long outlast the health emergency that made it necessary in the first place.
“There are some kids who are really going to thrive with this,” said Shabana Sayed, a virtual middle school science teacher, “and who need this type of a learning program.”
When FCPS made the decision in June to offer a virtual option for the 2021-22 school year, Mike Watson and his colleagues had about seven weeks to make it happen. They had to create a course schedule, hire staff and attempt to find them office space.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Watson said Friday.
They got the program off the ground and were able to invite K-12 students to enroll. Amid staffing shortages and limited interest from families, some nearby districts — including Carroll and Howard counties — had to either cancel their plans for virtual academies or restrict enrollment to elementary and middle schoolers.
For two years now, Watson has served as principal of the Frederick County Virtual School, which existed nearly 10 years before COVID-19 did. That program was originally a sort of dropout-prevention strategy: Students would take virtual classes in the evenings if they were struggling to meet graduation requirements.
The program evolved and expanded over time. When the pandemic hit, its main purposes were reducing class sizes in brick-and-mortar schools, allowing kids to retake classes they’d failed and letting students take niche or advanced courses that weren’t offered at their home schools.
Typically, students taking classes through the Virtual School would independently work their way through courses that FCPS had purchased from online education providers. They’d check in with a designated teacher once a week.
Watson now also serves as the high school principal for the Blended Virtual Program. It’s been brought “under the umbrella” of the Virtual School, he said, but the programs are distinct and differ in key ways.
Students in the Blended Virtual Program are taught by FCPS teachers, and their schedules mirror that of a traditional school setting. They have specials, virtual field trips, lunch breaks and recess. Learning is mostly synchronous, and they take classes alongside kids from all over the county.
They’re still technically enrolled in their home schools, though, and can participate in extracurricular activities there.
While the Blended Virtual Program was grown out of pandemic necessity, Watson said, the district is working to build it into something more robust and more organized. Some families might not realize that, he said.
“Some impressions were made based on last year's emergency,” Watson said. “Now we're trying to build a systemic, long-term option for kids. And so that might look different.”
Teachers in the Blended Virtual Program made the jump from brick-and-mortar classrooms for a variety of reasons.
Sayed was drawn to her current job — teaching five back-to-back classes of seventh-grade science via Google Meets — after seeing some of her students excel with the independence and flexibility they were afforded during the pandemic.
“I wanted to be part of something like that,” she said.
She’s decorated her makeshift office in an unoccupied classroom at Walkersville Middle School. Behind her head hangs a poster with a quote from the third book in the Harry Potter series: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
For Susan Crone, who has taught elementary school in northern Frederick County for more than 30 years, the new gig was a welcome change of pace.
“I don’t ever get to do anything new,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve done it all. And sometimes, I’ve done it twice.”
Crone teaches reading and writing to two groups of fifth-graders, sometimes from her home office and sometimes from a large storage room in Thurmont Elementary School. Like Sayed and Adams-Campbell, she’s put up a bulletin board directly behind her head, covered in a few bold messages she hopes the kids can see through her webcam.
It took longer than usual for Crone to form an emotional bond with her students this year, she said. She usually connects with them over the little things she picks up on in the classroom — listening in on a conversation here, peeking over a shoulder at an art project there.
Still, it’s happening. During a recent Google Meet, she got to talking with one little boy about chickens. Crone has “way too many,” she said, and the student really wanted one.
So the boy’s family drove 40 minutes from their home in New Market to Crone’s in Thurmont. He left with one of her chickens and the image of his teacher as a real, three-dimensional person.
The virtual format affords unique instructional benefits, the teachers said. Students can hop into breakout rooms to ask questions they may otherwise feel embarrassed about. Teachers can send out assignment links tailor-made for each child.
In Adams-Campbell’s high school creative writing class, students are more likely to share their work if they can tilt their cameras upwards, allowing just a piece of their forehead to show. Sometimes, they’ll paste it into the chat, and have Adams-Campbell read it instead.
“This format, it's great for kids with anxiety,” she said. “I think it builds their confidence.”
But the program presents logistical challenges, too. Staffing and scheduling are the main issues, Watson said. There’s not enough teachers to offer all the high school courses that students may want. It’s tough to expect middle schoolers to sit in front of a screen for seven class periods in a row.
And Frank Vetter, principal of the virtual middle school, said some students just aren’t cut out for the program. He’s often in contact with parents of students who haven’t showed up to class for a while.
“In some cases, we facilitated them returning to their home schools,” Vetter said. “Because families realized, ‘Look, you know, my kid really does need the structure of a school. They need a teacher with them.’”
Still, the program’s principals and teachers were adamant it should endure for the kids who flourish in it. The virtual students represent about 3 percent of FCPS' population right now, but Watson expressed hope it could grow.
"I think we're doing the right thing for kids," Watson said. "Regardless of how big it is."