By Alexandra Rodovic

Prince George’s County students are returning to the new semester virtually this month, due to the current surge of coronavirus cases in the county. Chief Executive Officer Monica Goldson announced this transition in a recent press release: Virtual learning will continue Monday, January 3 through Friday, January 14. In-person learning will resume Tuesday, January 18, following the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.”

According to the press release, students in the K-6 virtual learning program will go back to in-person instruction on Jan. 31.

Returning to online learning, a mode in which many students use Chromebook computers provided by the county, raises a range of concerns — not all of them about juggling home and work and school and childcare logistics. 

Some parents fear that Chromebooks offer too many distractions.

“When we were remote all last year, the Chromebooks were essential,” said Amanda Souna, whose second grader attends Hollywood Elementary. “Most of  my issues [are] with the apps, and that students are becoming very dependent on the apps and the typing, as opposed to just having the Zoom meetings, then doing old-fashioned learning.”

Souna commended teachers for conducting informative and engaging zoom meetings with the class., though she noted that students can easily be distracted by games and browsing.  

“Now that [my son] is older and now that he’s seeing his friends go on YouTube, it’s become more of an issue to where he has this thing now with all of these distractions. There’s no blocking the video games,” she said. 

Prince George’s County offers students YouTube on school issued devices, unlike neighboring Montgomery County.

Nancy Washington, a former teacher and mother of two PGCPS students, was enthusiastic about the free technical resources provided by the school system.

Nancy Washington’s son, a student at Greenbelt Middle School, participating in virtual learning from home.
Courtesy of Nancy Washington

“The teachers have been great in providing resources on how to use the technology,” Washington said. “I would tell parents to utilize the resources the school gives you.”

One free resource she pointed to was Remind, which offers free tutoring to students county-wide.

Washington’s son is an eighth-grader at Greenbelt Middle School, and her daughter is a fifth-grader at Dora Kennedy French Immersion School, also in Greenbelt. She noted that her kids are not fans of virtual learning and said that their focus is better when they are in the classroom and can interact with teachers and classmates. Washington also said that her daughter has sometimes strayed from her virtual classroom, an issue that the school has flagged.  

“We’ve had to make it very clear that she can only use her school computer for school things,” Washington said.

Nancy Washington’s daughter, a student at Dora Kennedy French Immersion School, participates in virtual learning from home.
Courtesy of Nancy Washington

In addition to observing that their kids can get distracted while using their Chromebooks, some parents have reported that their kids are more absorbed in them than in other activities that were previously appealing. 

“My child is on a screen a lot,” noted Meghan Simpson, a member of the Hollywood Elementary PTA, who’s child is a second-grader at the school. “Screens are now his go-to, rather than looking at a book, playing with Legos, drawing, going outside. … They are the norm.”

Simpson noted, though, that some of the games and apps preinstalled on Chromebooks can help with learning.

“A good amount of my child’s curriculum seems to entail district-approved apps,” Simpson wrote. “They offer an element of gamification that can be fun for kids. … They also provide constant feedback and encouragement.”

Simpson acknowledged that some Chromebook learning tools may be frustrating and difficult to master, particularly for younger students.

“For instance, a simple math lesson might ask a child to solve 10 plus two,” she said, “to do this, the child must drag 10 red icons to and two blue icons to certain places, using the mousepad or touch screen, to show that 10 plus two equals 12. Or, kids might need to use the mousepad or screen to write … which feels unnatural,” adding, “It seems to me that kids might be better off using a pencil and paper for many tasks in school,” she said. 

Souna shared a similar concern. “I just think it’s gone too far,” she said. “I get the feeling that they’re not doing enough handwritten work. My son is only in the second grade, he needs to be practicing his handwriting and written expression, and instead they are doing typing.”

Amanda Souna’s son, a student at Hollywood Elementary, participating in virtual learning from home.
Courtesy of Amanda Souna

Souna noted, too, that her son’s in-person classroom experience is heavily influenced by technology, and she pointed out that students are allowed to use their Chromebooks during indoor recess and at after-school care.

“What’s been disappointing is that they’re still using the Chromebooks a lot, even though they’re in person,” she said, “I just wish they would just leave them at the school. I want the kids to be able to put them aside for part of the day, it’s like this new attachment,” she said. “I know I have trouble resisting my phone and the temptation to check emails. If I’m an adult, and I have trouble, you can’t expect a child to handle that.”