As the number of students in quarantine grows and exceeds capacity for virtual classrooms, Montgomery County Public Schools leaders said Thursday they will adjust the way classes are taught to those students.
Starting Tuesday, instead of attending live classes, quarantined primary school students will be able to access recorded math and literacy classes on their own time. There will be no graded assignments or “direct interactions with teachers” during classes, district leaders said.
The model will be used for all primary schools. MCPS Chief of Teaching Learning and Schools Sarah Sirgo said more teachers than needed have volunteered to record the lessons.
High school students either continue to watch their classes live stream or have class time or Zoom check-ins with their teachers during their non-instructional periods. The teachers will decide each day what is best for their students based on the content being taught and other ‘individual circumstances’.
The instruction will be available to some students who are absent for reasons other than quarantine — such as no access to transportation as the district struggles with a shortage of bus drivers or their families don’t feel safe attending in-person classes as numbers increase. The option is available at least until January 31.
The decision whether these students can access the quarantine instruction will be made on a case-by-case basis, district leaders said. The goal is to help them go to class and feel comfortable in the classroom.
Previously, those students did not have access to the quarantine instruction.
The new models have been met with some reluctance from school board members — including Rebecca Smondrowski and student member Hana O’Looney — who worry they don’t offer a “full educational experience.”
However, MCPS administrators said the models are a short-term bridge meant to keep students “engaged.” It is not considered a long term virtual learning option like the virtual academy.
“None of these experiences replace coming to school in person,” Sirgo said. “… It is a handhold to keep you informed when you are not at school. It’s not something we want someone to do indefinitely.”
The new elementary school model will alleviate an issue that surfaced Thursday that required more students to access the live classes than the neighborhood’s Zoom platform could accommodate at the same time.
Sirgo said about 450 children signed up for each level on Wednesday evening, dividing each course into two parts. The limit for teachers’ Zoom accounts is about 300 students, a district spokesperson said.
When asked by Smondrowski why elementary school classes can’t be livestreamed like middle and high school classes, Sirgo said, “Teachers didn’t think it was appropriate for development.”
The recorded lessons will be designed “with the virtual learner in mind,” she said, while a class live stream, especially for young children, may not be as engaging.
When schools switch to virtual classes
District leaders plan to evaluate a handful of different ways COVID-19-related illness and absence affects each school when deciding whether to move to virtual classrooms.
The different points include:
• The number of cases of COVID-19 in the last 10 days
• The number of student absences
• The number of employee absences and how they will affect school activities
• The number of unfilled replacement requests
• The school community’s perspective on the ability to operate safely and effectively.
Despite the pleas of some school administrators, there are no barriers that automatically trigger the change.
McKnight said administrators will work to develop certain metrics to guide decisions and bring more ideas to the school board at later meetings. But for now, the plan is being carried out as presented.
“I think we don’t have to make decisions in the gray areas and then announce them, so nobody really understands what factors were involved and how they were weighted,” said board member Lynne Harris.
As the central office administrators evaluate the data every day (all of which will be available by 10 a.m., said Dana Edwards, chief of Districtwide Services and Support), they will signal any trends over three days to school leaders, officials from the Department of Public health and community members. who are part of an assessment group per school.
If a school is identified as one that should move to virtual classrooms, it probably won’t happen immediately. Instead, there will be up to two business days before the service to allow families to prepare, Edwards said.
The schools remain in the virtual model for 10 calendar days.
Edwards said that of 119 of the MCPS sites that offer childcare, 103 have said they can provide some space for students whose schools are moving to the virtual format and need supervision. There are about 2,108 seats available at those sites, she said.