In this Washington-area school system, more than 10,000 students are staying virtual

It also makes Prince George unusual in the DC area, in a school year meant to return to pre-pandemic normalcy. Nationally, school systems are divided on whether to pursue virtual education.

In the Washington area, most school systems are making full use of in-person learning, seeing it as the best way for students to recover from academic losses and mental health challenges from a near-death crisis. 20 months.

Prince George’s County has also emphasized in-school learning and initially had a smaller virtual program in mind for the fall. But that changed in August, when the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus was on the rise and vaccinations for children under 12 still seemed a long way off.

Worried about the spread of the virus, some parents in Prince George have demanded more virtual instruction. Today, nearly 10,400 K-6 students are in virtual classrooms in the school district — the most of any school system in Maryland or the Washington area. New online campus program for grades 7-12 students in Prince George enrolls around 500 others.

Monica Goldson, chief executive of the 130,000-pupil system, said in an interview that as the school nears to open, she hears more and more from families who are reluctant to send young children back to the buildings. school without getting vaccinated.

“The anxiety continued to build as the weeks went on in August,” she said, pointing out that Prince George’s has been hit hard by the pandemic, with more coronavirus cases than any other jurisdiction in Maryland.

“At the end of the day, we want parents to feel comfortable having their kids with us because they’re with us for eight hours a day, every day,” Goldson said.

In Prince George’s majority black school system, many parents and educators are acutely aware that people of color are particularly at risk. Federal data shows that black or Hispanic people are more than twice as likely as white people to be hospitalized or die from covid-19.

For some families, the risks of returning in person were too great.

“I feel more comfortable sending my kids away once they’re vaccinated,” said Liz Esposito, PTA vice president at Capitol Heights Elementary School, where her sons are in fourth and fifth grades. .

Esposito and her mother are immunocompromised, she said, and her children have done well with virtual learning. While one son really wants to go back to school, the other would stay virtual indefinitely if he could, she said.

“I’m glad they were able to get in touch with the teachers even though they don’t see them in person,” she said.

The expanded virtual program is expected to last until early February, at the end of the second term, and Goldson hopes young students will have had the opportunity to get vaccinated and can return to class. While some students succeed or thrive through virtual education, learning in a physical school with a teacher is widely considered the best for most students.

In Northern Virginia, distance programs are much smaller, with 638 students learning virtually in Arlington, about 530 in Loudoun County and less than 400 in Fairfax County, the largest school system in the state, with an overall enrollment of nearly 180,000.

Maryland’s largest school system, in Montgomery County, has enrolled about 3,250 students in a virtual K-12 program, less than a third of Prince George’s.

Across Maryland, approximately 25,000 students are learning virtually. Of those, more than 34% of students are economically disadvantaged, according to state data released this week. Of those enrolled in virtual learning, 50% are black, 20% are Hispanic, 14% are white and 7% are Asian, according to the data.

At DC public schools, parents fought for a virtual option, but DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and her administration officials resisted, saying that students, especially low-income students of color, have fallen behind in virtual learning and that it was vital that they return to the classroom. Against the mayor, the DC Council passed emergency legislation in October that allows at least 350 more students to switch to virtual learning. Previously, 286 exemptions had been approved.

Markita Bryant, a single mother who has advocated a virtual option, said her 10-year-old son has severe asthma and was turned down for a medical exemption. He was instead at school, with extra safety measures including a medical mask with filters, weekly tests on Fridays and daily oxygen readings, she said.

In his push for virtual learning, “I was just asking for grace until the vaccine was approved for my son’s age,” Bryant said. “They weren’t listening or understanding.” When he’s vaccinated, she said, she could celebrate with “cake and balloons and whatever else you can think of.”

On a recent day at Capitol Heights Elementary, Esposito’s fourth-grade son and six other students were filmed as Rubin welcomed them into an early morning Zoom session. She focused on her virtual students for the first hour of the day, then turned to her in-person students, who arrived in the building later. Sometimes the groups overlap for half an hour.

“Happy Friday!” she began.

Soon they were discussing the assigned reading, from “Flora and Ulysses,” by author Kate DiCamillo. A student said she loved the novel. Another added that she had already finished it. Students are part of a talented and gifted class.

Some participated by writing in the chat section of the Zoom meeting, rather than waking up and speaking on the screen.

Rubin asked them to tell him what it meant to be a “cynic,” a word used in the book.

“Someone who believes in the worst,” wrote one student.

Shortly after, the fourth graders were with teacher Timothy McCotter, who alternated his math instruction between virtual students and in-person students. While one group worked independently, it interacted with the other.

He asked Esposito’s young son how he calculated a math problem.

“When I rounded them to the nearest 10,000, they were the same,” the boy told him, correctly explaining the answer. The class explored better ways to compare them by rounding up.

Several teachers at Capitol Heights Elementary said most of their students were doing well virtually, a sentiment shared by Goldson, the school system’s chief executive. For teachers, however, juggling can be a challenge – although not all virtual teaching is done the same.

Nicole Gibbs teaches 15 virtual students, all in second grade, who spend much of their school day with her. The class includes children from its home school, Capitol Heights Elementary, as well as children from three other schools in the county.

Gibbs said she loves virtual teaching, which she says “forces me to open up in a different way and find different ways to engage with my students.” What she appreciates, she says, are the times when they light up on something newly learned.

“It’s the sparkle in their eyes and the excitement in their voice when they grasp a new concept,” she said. “You know they got it.”

Many schools across the country have moved away from a concurrent approach to teaching this year, saying it’s too difficult for teachers to focus on virtual children and in-person children simultaneously. Prince George school system officials say 56% of K-6 classrooms have some level of concurrent instruction.

“It’s very stressful,” said Donna Christy, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, the teachers’ union. “Some of my colleagues shared the feeling of being exhausted in April when it was only September.”

The school system and teachers’ union reached an agreement that educators who do concurrent teaching would receive an additional $5,000 to $7,500 a year to compensate for the difficulty and the change in terms, Christy said.

Reshma “Rae” Sinanan-Hill, PTA president of Overlook Full Spanish Immersion School in Temple Hills, said her third- and fourth-grade daughters are among more than 100 students taking distance education.

The family’s decision seemed right, Sinanan-Hill said, when a letter arrived home about a coronavirus case during the first week of school. Also, the bus service was “a nightmare”, she said. Yet, although her daughters have done well with virtual education, her third-grader is eager to return.

“I don’t question my reasoning for keeping them at home,” Sinanan-Hill said. “I really want them to learn in school, but we are dealing with a pandemic, and we have to make the best decisions possible to keep them safe.”

Perry Stein contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Reshma “Rae” Sinanan-Hill’s name. This version has been corrected.

Jeremy S. McLain