This time of year usually means increased traffic and rushing out of the house to avoid a tardy on the first day of school. But school bus sightings are scarce and traffic continues to be moderate as the first week of school starts online for Southern Maryland public school students.
Charles and St. Mary’s counties started Aug. 31 while Calvert County started Sept. 2. Although the school year is already underway, state officials made recommendations to change some school system’s reopening plans.
The state board of education voted Sept. 1 to enforce schools be opened 180 school days, hold at least six hour days, an average of 3.5 hours of synchronous instruction and systems that are not planning to return students until the second semester should reevaluate by the end of the first quarter.
School systems were initially told to develop their own reopening plans by Aug. 14, following guardrails the state implemented that did not include a timeline of when students should return to school.
“The conversation at today’s State Board of Education meeting would have been useful months ago; having it today, after the school year has begun in many areas, is incredibly out of touch with the realities that educators, parents, and students are dealing with every day and the hard work that they have done and that is ahead,” Cheryl Bost, Maryland State Education Association president, said.
Charles students experience technology glitches
Charles County public schools reports in its reopening plan to transition into in-person instruction for all through five phases. However, they did not implement a timeline of when the transition will begin.
Superintendent Kim Hill said on Aug. 11 moving to the second phase, which brings back a special population like special education and CTE students, is dependent on the readiness of staff.
Katie O’Malley Simpson, spokesperson for the Charles’ school system, said they believe their plan is in compliance with the state board’s recent decision.
Charles County’s online learning platform, Synergy, had a malfunction on its first day of school. But it was up and running an hour later.
Some parents said their families are struggling with learning from home.
Melissa Swann of Newburg said the internet connection is bad at her home and she was not able to receive a hotspot because the school system’s delivery had not yet arrived.
“The only success he had yesterday was he was excited he made a new friend,” she said about her fourth-grader.
Charles County schools have an opt-out option for online learning that will be approved on a case by case bases.
Teachers would record lessons and share with students in individual StudentVue accounts. Students will have 72 hours to watch a recorded lessons.
Parents and students are not able to download recorded lessons. Students are counted as present and provided credit for participation.
The application to opt out can be found here. https://forms.office.com/Pages/ResponsePage.aspx?id=fts6jik6w0CD3e0PwztGw25CbSlQnLdMhUAxie__-ydUNTlXUDNFT09YTlRIQzhNUVlNRjY2M0dKUy4u.
The deadline for the application closes at midnight Sept. 4.
Starting off in St. Mary’s
Scott Smith, superintendent of St. Mary’s public schools, said 88.9% of all registered students successfully logged into Schoology, the online learning platform, on Tuesday. The goal is to connect the remaining kids by today.
“Our teachers are committed to making meaningful connections with their students and that is evident in the structure of this week — as the emphasis is getting to know students, making introductions, and becoming familiar with our new learning management system, Schoology,” he said in an email, adding he’s proud of the work of the staff.
St. Mary’s school system also experienced technology problems for its online start. Esperanza Middle School tweeted in the afternoon Tuesday they were without power and WiFi. A follow-up tweet said teachers will not be available and students should work on asynchronous learning.
A couple hours later, the main school system’s Twitter account tweeted they were also experiencing connection issues on the main website, school websites and the password reset portal. A follow up tweet around 6:30 p.m. said it was resolved.
Smith said the middle school had power flicking on and off in the afternoon and maintenance determined that one of the three phases was out. A SMECO crew prevented any further damage to the building and the issue was resolved by the end of the day.
St. Mary’s return to school plan starts with learning from home and phases into a hybrid learning model. Smith announced on Wednesday Head Start, pre-K and special education students will return for in-person instruction Sept. 21 to Oct. 2. Kindergartners, first-graders, sixth graders, freshmen and seniors will return for a hybrid model Oct. 5 through Oct. 16. And the rest of students will return for hybrid mode Oct. 19 to Oct. 30.
Thousands of devices were available and more are expected to arrive this month, though they have not yet met the goal to give a device to all 18,000 students.
Calvert’s first day
Calvert’s school system had its first day Sept. 2, a couple days after the other Southern Maryland counties.
Superintendent Daniel Curry told Calvert commissioners Aug. 25 they purchased 370 Kajeet Smartspots, or hotspots, for students with poor internet connection. About 150 students are without cable or internet in the county.
Laptops were given to most students and 800 iPads were purchased, but Curry encouraged parents to use their own devices for children in kindergarten, first and second grade.
They are also opening internet cafes, or a space in a school building students can attend to do their work, next week. Curry said an internet cafe could possibly be available at each school. Some students, like those with IEPs, can go to the school buildings when they need.
Curry said on Wednesday afternoon it might be too soon to tell how the first day is going but he has not received reports of any significant issues.
Although Curry is the only Southern Maryland superintendent to give staff the option to work from home, he said many are working at the buildings. He said they are figuring out what location is best.
Students will learn online through Jan. 27, 2021, for now, but a decision regarding whether that should change in the second semester will be made before Jan. 1.
Curry said he is unclear whether the state’s new guidelines affect the synchronous learning schedule but will not make changes until it is clear.
Some private schools in the region have begun in-person instruction, including St. Mary’s Ryken which implemented a hybrid model.