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The Big Question On The First Day Of School: Will Virtual Learning Work?

John Lee

There will be no school buses on the road Tuesday, even though it’s the first day of classes for a number of school systems in Maryland, including Baltimore City, and Baltimore and Howard Counties. Every school district in the state is starting the year with virtual learning.

School leaders in Baltimore County will be watching to see if the technology is working and in reach for its 115,000 students.

Baltimore County School Superintendent Darryl Williams said the technology is his number one concern as the school year gets under way. Is it available and is it working? During the first week of school, Williams said he will meet daily with his cabinet.

“If we know something is happening or something’s not working, we can get together and work with that school site to provide some support,” Williams said.

Last week, the three Republican members of the Baltimore County Council sent Williams a letter that points out that in some rural parts of the county there is no internet access. Also, there are parents throughout the county who can’t afford the technology. The council members wanted to know how students who need a chrome book or an internet hot spot could go about getting one.

At an education town hall last week, Community Superintendent Raquel Jones said not all students have what they need yet.

Jones said, “For students needing internet access, families should inform the school and the school will work with families to ensure they have a hotspot.”

Getting virtual learning right is not a short term fix. Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, said that when students return to school buildings, they will have a hybrid of in-person instruction and distance learning.

“I think people forget the other half of hybrid is virtual learning,” Bost said. “So we have to get that right, and then we can begin to transition students back into our schools.”

According to school officials, there has been some confusion as to when that transition will happen.

On August 27, Gov. Larry Hogan called on school systems to return students to in-person classes as soon as possible. A few days later, the state education board ordered school systems like Baltimore County-which don’t plan to start face-to-face classes until January-to reevaluate their reentry plans and submit them to the state by the third week of November.

Williams said it’s possible some county students will return to classrooms before then. That first group of students likely will be the ones who need in-person instruction the most, like those in special education.

“Of course, they have to be safe,” Williams said, “We have to make sure we’re following the CDC guidelines, making sure we’re working with our health department.”

Bost said everyone wants students and teachers back in classrooms, but a lot has to happen first. Ventilation in school buildings needs to be checked. There must be rapid testing.  Cash-strapped school systems have to buy personal protective equipment (PPE.)

Meanwhile, on this first day of distance learning, Williams said he might be dropping in to some virtual classrooms.

“Just to say hi, not to disrupt what needs to happen the first day,” he said.

Williams asked for patience as they work through the inevitable issues that will arise with distance learning.

“Look at it as a new day,” Williams said. “We’re making history. We’re just excited our kids are returning and our staff members are returning.”

This marks Williams’ second opening day as Baltimore County School Superintendent. Thanks to COVID, he said it’s the toughest job he’s ever had, but he has no regrets.

“For me, I’ve got a good team,” Williams said. “I’ve got a supportive board, and I’ve got a great family that loves me when I go home, so I’m good.”

Williams said he plans to take a drive Tuesday to see a couple of new elementary schools that in a normal year would be opening for students, as a look to the future.

Construction is complete on Chadwick and Colgate Elementary Schools in Windsor Mill and Rosedale. The new Berkshire Elementary School building in Dundalk is expected to be ready to go next month.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County.
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