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How's That "Distance Learning" Going In The City? School Leaders Log On To Field Questions

Mary Rose Madden

Four hundred viewers logged on Thursday night to hear Baltimore City Schools Superintendent Dr. Sonja Santelises and her leadership team answer questions about the city’s distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis.

'My kids are in night school due to having one computer and one tablet and me, I'm working during the day. How can they qualify for a device?'

Santelises praised her team of administrators and educators for the work they’ve  done in the last few weeks to get city students connected to their teachers. She described “a heavy lift” that included launching a "full distance learning platform, complete with initial lessons that we're also televising through cable television."

Early on, she said, they focused on providing access to food  - something many families in Baltimore City rely on the schools to provide.  A few days later, they set up online learning with Google Classroom so students and teachers could communicate and Blackboard Collaborate to host the daily virtual classroom. And they created take home work packets for students who can’t get online.  

But Santelesis said they’re trying to compensate in a much less than ideal situation. 

"We know that learning at home in this context is not as robust as we would all want it to be," she said. 

But parents and students felt it was a lot to deal with. 

Janice Lane, executive director of teaching and learning for the city schools, told families there is a homework hotline for students and parents (443-984-2001) and a family resource guide to help them organize week to week lesson plans.

"Our goal right now  is continued learning for students," she said. "We are well aware that moving to virtual learning is not just new for our students, but it’s new for our families, our teachers, and our principals."

But one person wrote in “my kids are in night school due to having one computer and one tablet and me, I'm working during the day. How can they qualify for a device?"

Michael Rading, who works in IT for the district,  said based on a survey that went out to families, he thinks the school system now has enough Chromebooks to meet the students’ needs.

"We have devices in schools that we are redeploying to students,"  he said. "In addition to that the district has procured over 10,000 Chromebooks, which are also being deployed to schools. We are in high schools now and we’re going to shift into elementary and middle schools as we go into next week." 

One viewer said the online learning platform the teachers use kicks off people who are logged on through their phones.

So, it’s unclear whether that family – and others in the same boat - were counted as "in need of" a chromebook on the survey. 

Rading said he'll be re-assessing the need for more computers as they receive more survey results. 

Familes had other questions like: Will there be school in the summer? Answer: right now, no, but stay tuned. Will school start earlier come fall? Not sure. And a big question on everyone’s mind: Is the work being graded?

Santelises said that, too, is still being discussed. 

"We are finalizing what our grading policy will be as a district," she said. "But complete it as if it is going to count and we’ll get to the details later."    

Credit Mary Rose Madden / WYPR
A Baltimore City student working on a home work packet.

As of April 13, she said, more than 41,000 students were logging in to online learning. And overall, 75% to 80% of the students are connecting either with online access or work at home packets. 

But that means 20% to 25% of city students are not staying in touch with schoolwork.

It’s been hard for students and parents to keep up. As one parent put it, “we're having our kids cook, clean, read, and play - as we try not to lose our jobs.”

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.
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