Virtual start to school year for thousands of students across DC region

Eleven of the D.C. region’s school districts returned to class Tuesday — though classrooms will largely stay empty for the near future, with hundreds of thousands of students learning online as the pandemic continues.

Students across much of Northern Virginia and Maryland joined their peers elsewhere in an unprecedented, all-virtual start to the semester on Tuesday morning — and the vast array of unique technical, academic and social challenges it poses.

Seven Northern Virginia public school districts began online instruction: Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax County, Fairfax City, Loudoun County, Prince William County and Manassas Park. Maryland students in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City also logged on for their first day.


A rocky transition to remote learning in the fall for some schools meant education officials in both Maryland and Virginia took advantage of the summer break to make sure their infrastructures wouldn’t falter.

But despite preparations, several Arlington schools reported connectivity issues Tuesday morning, with some students unable to access classes.

“We are aware that students are having challenges logging into their classes,” read a banner on the Arlington Public Schools website. “We are working to address the issues quickly and appreciate your patience.”

Melih Ertekin, who teaches science at Luther Jackson Middle School in Fairfax County, sat in a classroom devoid of students Tuesday as he flipped open a laptop and readied his first remote lesson plan.

“One thing that’s been challenging for me is figuring out how to get them to interact with each other,” he said, stressing the importance of patience and flexibility after the school district ran into trouble when it first moved online in April.

“We tried it in the spring and it wasn’t great, but we’ve had some practice, we’ve had some time, and so now we’re going to roll with it and see what happens.”

Ertekin wants to preserve a hands-on approach to science education by guiding students through safe and simple experiments with materials at home. At times, he’ll have them break out into smaller groups over video chat.

“In my classroom, I’d put them into table groups and have them work together to try to solve a problem or do an activity,” he said. “With online learning, we have to take that slowly.”

Neighboring Loudoun County inducted a brand-new high school on Tuesday, though many of the gleaming modernist building’s classrooms were empty and will likely stay that way for the near future.

Last week’s return to classes in other parts of suburban Virginia and Maryland were not without their hitches: Across the Potomac, students in Charles County initially found themselves without access to their new learning platform amid what a spokeswoman described as a “systemwide outage.”

But many districts opening Tuesday devoted extra time and resources to ironing out first-day faults. Public schools in Fairfax County, Arlington and Baltimore were among those that either budgeted time for teachers to familiarize themselves with new tech before classes started, or postponed their kickoff altogether.

“We know an undertaking of this magnitude will not work flawlessly 100% of the time,” wrote Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand, where staff have been attending meetings and development training since Aug. 14. “We therefore have developed contingency plans to support our classroom teachers should any technical glitches arise next week or beyond.”

Maryland governor visits Eastern Shore schools

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan and State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon paid visits to several schools in Caroline County on the Eastern Shore, where schools have reopened their doors a hybrid in-person and virtual learning.

Overall, 16 of 24 Maryland jurisdictions have submitted plans to the state that included some return to classrooms this calendar year. Hogan has been critical of school systems that have planned virtual-only classes for the next several months, including in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which have planned to continue virtual learning through January.

Hogan said the state has asked those school systems to take another look at their plans and see if they could return to some limited form of in-person instruction after the first quarter.

“We never told anybody they had to get back to school,” Hogan said during a press availability outside Denton Elementary in Denton, Maryland. “It is the local school superintendents and school board’s decision.”

Salmon said school systems that reopen in some fashion — such as for students with disabilities or students without digital access — will work closely with local health departments to track any potential coronavirus cases.

Salmon said she was encouraged that two school systems that had in-person summer school — Worcester and Calvert counties — did not report any COVID-19 cases.

Anne Arundel County’s virtual learning landing page includes detailed how-tos on running Chromebooks provided to students, setting up Google Chrome profiles and using a cellphone as a mobile hot spot for those without a Wi-Fi connection.

While schools have been working overdrive planning for remote learning, officials are also looking forward to the eventual resumption of in-person teaching. Some, like Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City, are closely monitoring COVID-19 infection trends with the hopes of returning to the classroom this fall or winter with a hybrid model — where students would attend in-person classes for only part of the week.

Even though students started virtual learning Tuesday, Prince William County Public Schools Superintendent Steve Walts said his division is hard at work preparing buildings for their eventual return.

“Our health staff has worked closely with the Prince William Health District to develop a plan prioritizing the physical and social-emotional needs of our students and staff,” Walts wrote to parents.

“PPE is being delivered to all schools for nurses, special education staff, and other employees, and mobile hand sanitizer stations are being installed at all schools along with clear plastic barriers in areas where the public interacts with employees.”

WTOP’s Melissa Howell and Neal Augenstein contributed to this report.

More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital journalist and editor in June 2018. He is a reporter and photographer focusing on politics, political activism and international affairs.

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