Ezekiel Parson speaks with his second grade teacher from home in the more popular virtual learning uniform- his pajamas. (Photo credit/Ama Brown)

By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO

Public school students and their families are roughly halfway through an unprecedented semester of virtual learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Praise and critique have abounded as districts across the State of Maryland work to continue providing rigorous instruction, handle mental concerns, and accurately grade work via laptops, tablets and cell phones. 

“My children are both in advanced classes,” said Shayla Lowe, who has one 10th grader and one 8th grader enrolled in Howard County Public Schools. “They have been given a workload that supports their advanced assignments, but they both think that they are receiving more work because they are virtual.” 

Lowe said the hands-on nature of in-person learning would make some subjects easier for her students, but they “feel like they are really learning in their classes”- even if they do disagree on how they are graded.

“My son says some teachers believe that the home based resources are more vast, so they are graded harder. My daughter feels that some of the grades don’t reflect the amount of work required to complete the assignments,” said Lowe. “For instance, an assignment that requires a great deal of research and effort will only be worth 1 point; while an open book test may be worth 25-50 points.”

Lowe believes the hands-on learning that takes place during in-person instruction would make some subject matter easier, but she recognizes that safety is important. 

For parents of younger children, the struggles of virtual learning are compounded by the fact that they need more help doing simple things like reading, typing, and uploading completed assignments. 

“My second grader is not happy, but acceptance has taken hold and he is definitely learning. The teachers are quite thorough in guiding us,” said Ama Brown, whose son is enrolled in a Baltimore City Public School (City Schools).  “I have seen his improvement first hand and our schedule gives parents the freedom to be effective.”

According to information publicly released by the district, prekindergarten students are only expected to spend 110 minutes per day online and scholars in kindergarten receive roughly 160 minutes of instruction. 

Students from first to fifth grade are expected to complete 230 minutes or “just under 4 hours of synchronous online instruction,” each day and students in middle and high school receive 315 and 325 minutes of synchronous time respectively. 

Families receive instruction through both live, synchronous classes with a teacher, and a combination of resources to complete the same lesson on their own time, or asynchronously.

Categories that City Schools students are graded on during the 2020-2021 school year include assessments, participation, homework, classwork, similar to grading prior to the pandemic. During the virtual learning period, students flagged with emergency attendance codes issues and scholars with no device to complete work are to receive an “L” for late enrollment and no numerical grade. Students who have received a device and do not complete assignments synchronously or asynchronously receive a failing grade.

Brown said students in her son’s class are given ample amounts of time to submit work and there is no class on Wednesday to allow students to complete any necessary make-up work. Though she has to participate more with such a young student, she praised teachers for helping parents make the most of virtual learning. 

Aside from providing laptops and hotspots, City Schools has worked hard to ensure the mental health of scholars while the pandemic ravages the country. 

“In Spring we realized our students were going to need more support,” said Sarah Warren, executive director of Whole Child Services and Support for the Academics Office of City Schools. “We started doing daily wholeness and social emotional activities and that included mindfulness and breathing activities.”

Warren said City Schools has beefed up programming that teachers can download and complete at the beginning of classes or imbed in lessons. The district has also strengthened partnerships with local mental healthcare providers.

“We have the expanded school behavioral health program which we do in partnership with a lot of universities. Mental health clinicians come in through those partnerships and provide services to students at 130 schools,” said Warren. “That existed before the pandemic but it has been a particularly valuable resource during this time.” 

Aside from the regular stressors of being a student, Warren said it’s important to remember that many City Schools students are experiencing the pandemic from difficult situations in the home. 

“Sometimes there are as many as four or five students in one household and an older sibling might end up becoming a tutor or a mentor to the other children,” Warren told the AFRO. “Our students are living in many different scenarios even before the pandemic. In some cases, we have high school students with their own children and they are trying to raise their babies, go to school and work.”

Warren said she is worried about isolation- especially for older students. 

“I worry about the older students because- developmentally speaking- that’s when you start to shift your focus away from your family to social engagement with your peers,” she said. 

Stephanie Harper, mother of a fifth grader from Baltimore County Public Schools, said the effects of the pandemic weigh differently on each family.

“I think virtual learning is a little harder for some students because they don’t have immediate attention from a teacher, so it might feel harder or feel like more work,” she said. “I check in with my daughter to make sure she’s up and eating breakfast so she’s not eating in class. I make sure she’s finishing her work and I check her exit tickets.”

Harper praised efforts to keep resource classes and said she believes the academic work is just as rigorous as before the pandemic, as teachers still have the same goals and deliverables at the end of each unit. 

“The school really tried to keep dance and small groups and the energy alive. I’ve noticed that she has a pretty set schedule,” she said. “As far as grading, I think they have been fair.”

She echoed Warren’s sentiments about isolation at such a crucial age.

As virtual learning is an option for parents for the entirety of the 2020-2021 school year, Harper’s 10-year old could begin middle school next year with no in-person learning experience since 4th grade. 

To offset the emotional connections lost, Harper says she has to create opportunities for her daughter to socialize- which of course, includes a healthy Tik-Tok addiction.

Moving forward, Harper said she will continue to do like many parents in the pandemic and continue to be an added resource to all the hard work teachers are doing.

Word in Black is a reimagining of the Black Press, a journey initially adopted by 10 publishers of independently owned Black media companies. Articles found under this banner are companion pieces to those of fellow publishers and are also located on WordinBlack.com

Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer