Everything You Need to Know About First Semester Virtual Education

This summer, MCPS officials and Blake staff have been working tirelessly to ensure students have a positive and productive experience with remote, virtual instruction this first semester including implementing a modified bell schedule, promoting adaptive instruction techniques, arranging for meal and material pick up, and caring for students’ social and emotional health. 

Despite Governor Larry Hogan’s announcement that Maryland public schools could return to in-person instruction now, MCPS will start the year with virtual learning while officials discuss Governor Hogan’s updates. 

Class Structure

The Board of Education voted Tuesday, Aug. 25 to pass a schedule for a truncated school day. Students begin the instructional day at 9 AM and end the day officially at 3:30 PM. However, the last 15 minutes is reserved for students to organize themselves, as well as engage with teachers and classmates. Classes will be held on an alternating schedule, with Periods 1-4 for an hour each Mondays and Thursdays, and Periods 5-8 for an hour each Tuesdays and Fridays. Lunch will be 75 minutes from 11:15 AM – 12:30 PM. 

Regarding meals, breakfast and lunch services will be provided at 74 MCPS schools, and students will be able to drive up, enter their pin number, and get meals. Blake is not one of the 74 locations. For more information about meal service as well as a complete list of participating schools, visit this site

“This is going to be nothing like the spring,” Principal Bob Sinclair affirms of virtual learning. “The spring was emergency instruction and this truly has to be real instruction done virtually. We have to continue to move students forward. [They] need to learn and [we] prepare [them] for beyond high school.”

The new Period 8 blocks, also referred to as Bengal Time, are focused on concepts such as social-emotional learning activities, community town halls to discuss issues of importance to students, and restorative justice practices. Mr. Sinclair explains that for the first two Period 8 blocks, he would like for staff to focus on teaching students virtual organization skills and then hosting community building activities for students like decorating virtual lockers. Students will not be completing curriculum-related work the first week of school, and will instead spend time getting to know their teachers, their classmates, and Zoom/virtual classroom norms. 

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve kind of had a theme a year, [and] ‘One Team, One Goal’ is one I’d like to carry on for a couple years,” Mr. Sinclair adds, emphasizing the importance of building a close knit community in these unusual circumstances. “As an entire group—parents, students, staff, community—we all are in this together. We need to work together to get you all where you need to be by the time you graduate.” 

Mr. Sinclair highlighted the importance of caring for students’ social and emotional health during the first semester. When teachers came back to the building Aug. 24, he made it clear that students should never be staring at a screen for an hour at a time listening to teachers lecture. Instead, Zoom classes will include breakout rooms where students can work collaboratively and even periods where students can go off camera to work on readings and assignments individually. Otherwise, students are expected to be on camera during Zoom classes and they are encouraged to practice grooming and hygiene like they would if they were attending in-person classes. Additionally, there will be 10-15 minute breaks between class periods to help avoid “Zoom fatigue.” The 75-minute lunch breaks were created in an effort to allow students who need to purchase lunch from schools to do so, but also to give students a break from screen time or an opportunity to check in with administrators and teachers. 

In another measure to give students a break from screens, students will not receive live instruction Wednesdays. Wednesdays are reserved for individual, asynchronous learning with optional 30-minute check-in periods from 10:15 AM to 11:15 AM and 12:30 PM to 2:40 PM should students need assignment help from teachers. These periods will be arranged by content area, so each subject will have a 30-minute block for check-ins. Assistant Principal Norman Edwards emphasized during the Aug. 24 senior back-to-school information session, however, that students will have assignments to work on Monday through Friday. 

Mr. Sinclair expresses he understands that hours staring at a screen can be draining. He also notes that as some students struggle to obtain the educational resources they need, are balancing school and working to support their family, and/or are caring for other family members, teachers will show more grace and understanding with students who may not be able to fully attend a class. “Our goal is to make sure that you learn,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to know what I’m telling you to know right now, but we [need to] help you learn the material, because that’s ultimately our job.”

Students experiencing significant disruptions will need to contact their teacher, and will be given access to a recording of the class for a limited amount of time. This should not be used as an excuse to miss class for trivial reasons, however. Just as in normal times, attendance will be taken at the beginning of every class, and students will need to submit an electronic note to the attendance secretary if they miss instruction. 

For students experiencing significant technological disruptions, Mr. Sinclair assumes the MCPS tech office at 45 West Gude Drive in Rockville will be open for a certain window of time (it was 10 AM to 12 PM this summer). Students can exchange malfunctioning chromebooks for new ones and they can also pick up MiFi hotspots should they lack access to wifi. There is also a help desk number students can call (240-453-2436). Blake has distributed more than 300 chromebooks over the summer. Student login information will not change this year. 

Starting mid-September, Blake will be hosting material pickup days for department-specific items like textbooks, instruments and art supplies. 

Classes will be based out of MyMCPS Classroom instead of Google Classroom this year; however, other applications like Google Docs and Slides will continue to be used. Landing pages for classes will include links to Zoom sessions, the Blake website, and the counseling website. There is also a special MyMCPS Classroom page for seniors, with information regarding standardized testing dates, scholarships, financial aid, etc., run by new College and Career Information Coordinator Bryon Marshall. Seniors can enroll themselves here

Attached to MyMCPS Classroom will be the new Synergy application, which has replaced MyMCPS Portal. Synergy will allow students and parents to view students’ schedules and grade updates in real time. 

Unlike the spring where students had the option of taking classes pass/incomplete, students will receive traditional letter grades again. The 50% rule and “Z” policy will still apply, with the expectation that students will be given multiple opportunities to re-do assignments. Assessments will change as well, however, with teachers opting for more free response questions and projects to demonstrate mastery of course concepts in place of multiple choice questions, given students’ increased access to information at home and online. 

For students participating in dual enrollment at Montgomery College (MC), MC is trying to work around MCPS’ schedule to have students complete their MC credits before or after the virtual school day. 

Community Engagement

Mr. Sinclair expresses he really would like to run this school year as closely as possible to how a normal school year would be run. 

Instead of being present in the hallways greeting students every morning or floating around at lunch, administrators will be popping into classes to say hello and evaluate teachers. They will also make themselves more available to students by hosting virtual office hours at lunch should students want to share thoughts, concerns, or feedback on virtual learning. After school activities and reimagined sports seasons will be hosted virtually, so administrators will be checking in on those as well. 

The reimagined sports seasons will include five-week preparatory seasons for fall, winter, and spring sports. Tryouts will not be required and students will not need to prove academic eligibility. During these seasons, students will engage in potential virtual conditioning opportunities, game film viewing, mindfulness activities, academic encouragement practices, and more. It is not yet clear whether students will need a physical form to participate in virtual activities. Beginning second semester, MCPS is planning to facilitate shortened in-person sports seasons for fall, winter, and spring sports. Tryouts will occur, students will need physical forms, and students will need to be academically eligible. 

The musical traditionally held in the fall is slated to be held in the spring, guidelines permitting, and students will have the opportunity to produce a virtual production in the fall. This entails students recording scenes from their homes, which will be spliced together into a full show. 

In terms of spirit weeks and other fun student events for all grades, the SGA is looking at planning virtual spirit weeks as well as physically-distanced events like a drive-in movie night in the parking lot. 

For senior events, an MCPS workgroup comprising principals and assistant principals from high schools around the county is examining how senior events can take place this year. As of right now, Blake is still planning to host a senior banquet in the winter, as well as prom, after prom and graduation in the spring. “We’re reaching out and trying to book the dates so we have them, with the wishful thinking that if we have them, they’ll happen,” Mr. Sinclair says.  

Senior pictures will be scheduled mid-September or early October. The virtual Senior College Night will take place Sep. 10 from 6-7 PM. Seniors can register for that here. Should seniors have questions or concerns in the interim, they can email Mr. Marshall and/or set up a Zoom appointment with him. 

Closing

Admittedly, Mr. Sinclair says he will miss getting to interact with students in-person, and worries that not being physically in school will make it significantly harder to find and reach out to struggling students. “The part of the job I love the most is being around and connecting with the kids,” he says, adding that not being able to be a physical presence greeting kids in the hallways and supporting them at sporting events and/or after school activities is tough for him.  

“I [also] feel like reaching all of our kids is going to be a challenge so we don’t lose anyone. [In school], we get a good read on where people are. I worry that we’re going to not be able to connect with and care for kids like we normally do and that kids may get overlooked.”

That being said, Mr. Sinclair believes the county made the safest choice possible in mandating remote instruction for the first semester. “Some days I feel like we should be able to come in and be safe about it, but … [other days] I feel like we have a long way to go,” he says. “I do think we made a decision the best we could with what we knew. I think they made the decision that was the safest. Now it’s our job to make sure that we can make the instruction happen this way.”

There are still many question marks surrounding the logistics of virtual schooling, but as Mr. Sinclair points out, the process of refining and perfecting remote learning could help reinvent teaching and the education system as a whole. 

“I’m very optimistic that [virtual learning] will prevent disruptions in education [as] we’ll now learn tools we can use on snow days, summer days, and spring break days,” Mr. Sinclair says. “I’m hoping that when we come back, instruction looks different and is very engaging. Though this may be stressful for teachers, the skills they pick up will help you tremendously and will improve education in the long run.”

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The Blake Beat will continue to provide the Blake community with updates regarding virtual instruction as we learn more. Our mission of informing our community is more important now than ever before.