Maryland Virtual Learning Platform: Continuous Efforts and Challenges

With Maryland schools shuttered as coronavirus outbreaks turned into a global pandemic, state educators continue their efforts and creativity to support students and to improve classroom instruction online. Baltimore County Public School spokesperson, Brandon Oland confirmed that while in Baltimore County, the third and fourth marking periods have been combined and students will receive a pass/fail grade instead of a traditional letter grade, virtual teaching and virtual counseling services are available for students who need assistance.

“We are so proud of our teachers, they swiftly transitioned to virtual learning and are doing all they can to support students. Many of our teachers are also parents. They are truly heroes for what they have been able to do so far for students and what they continue to do,” said Oland.

In the last few weeks, millions of students, teachers and parents have had to adjust to learning from home, which means new challenges and responsibilities for both teachers and families. While teachers struggle with keeping children focuses on schoolwork, parents have to juggle daytime responsibilities with children’s schoolwork.

Tazeen Khalid, a teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at Guilford Elementary School in Maryland, stated that at first she was completely fazed by the new learning platform and was apprehensive about its success.

“After teaching via distance learning for the past three weeks, I have gotten used to it and feel comfortable with it,” said Khalid.

Shaheer Sham, 18, a student at Lansdowne High School in Maryland said that he prefers online- learning, as he doesn’t have to go to school. He enjoyed his online classes but found it challenging sometimes especially when doing assignments with no teacher around.

“Virtual learning is pretty much self-learning, I have to learn a lot on my own. However, the resources provided are useful and adequate. We are more than welcomed to contact our teachers if there’s anything we need help with, Also, Google Meets is a really useful tool. It provides an online version of school office hours,” said Sham.

Like many teachers in Maryland, Khalid has no way but to use her creativity to help both her students and their families to maneuver through online learning. She provides a live small group instruction each day to student of different grade levels. Khalid was faced with a real obstacle, which are the language barriers.

“My students’ families were faced by a huge road block initially due to language barriers, but with the assistance of several county interpreters, I have successfully managed to integrate my families into distance learning,” said Khalid. “I act as a liaison for the rest of my staff and set up interpreting requests with our International Services Resource Center, I also made numerous phone calls to my Urdu speaking families to determine their technological needs and ensure that these needs were fulfilled.”

Khalid continues to contact families with chronic absenteeism and incomplete assignments. She advocates for many families who simply are not aware of the new attendance policies and express them of how the county documents student attendance.

In Maryland, many families are struggling to cope with the new norm of distance learning. Lack of devices and the lack of Internet service were major challenges.

“In BCPS, all middle and high school students are provided with devices for learning. We distributed more than 15,000 devices, via mail, to students in Grades 3-5 who need them. We have also provided packets for elementary school students with the same resources that are posted online,” said Oland.

“Howard County worked hard to gauge the technological deficits and tried to fix the access gaps. We distributed over 20,000 Chrome books at the ratio of 1 device per two students at high, middle and elementary school levels,” said Khalid.

Parents have to cope with balancing family commitments and school obligations. Several kids miss their weekly check-ins as their parents are essential workers and no one is available to log them in especially in the younger grades.

“We offer virtual check-ins twice a week so families have flexibility to work with their schedules. Families also faced the new challenge of navigating the Canvas platform. This was especially daunting to the families of English Language learners. Our International Office worked diligently to provide interpretation services to familiarize the parents with online expectations,” said Khalid.

As virtual learning continues in Maryland, some parents have complained of feeling over whelmed with the new learning platform. Counselors at various schools have reached out to provide both student and parents with adequate support. Schools throughout the state of Maryland are providing adequate resources to ensure a good performance of both teachers and students.

“Howard County is using Lexia Core for Reading and Dreambox, which are an adaptive and engaging computer based learning program. Our teachers are posting activities and weekly assignments with awarding points for completion. We are making every effort to ensure that IEP and EL accommodations are being provided along with differentiated small group lessons,” said Khalid.

Farzam Jedinia’s creativity emerges during quarantine


Simple Games to Play at Home during #Coronavirus Pandemic (3)

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people are finding themselves wondering how to keep kids entertained during quarantine.

Farzam Jedinia, 10, a fourth year student at Olde Creek Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia came up with a creative way to stay connected with his friends and classmates during the quarantine. While he enjoyed his days off from school during the pandemic, he soon realized that he was truly missing his school days, teachers and his friends.

With his father’s assistance, Farzam created a YouTube channel, where he regularly posts videos of a variety of creative and affordable indoor activities and games for friends to enjoy while encouraging them to stay home.

“Coronavirus pandemic forced many children out of school including me. It is good to play some simple games at home and stay away from screens and video games for some time. I decided to provide videos with the help of my dad to make the home stay easier for other school children, and we decided to encourage them by using the hashtags of #StayAtHome and #FlattenTheCurve,” said Farzam.

Coronavirus disease is affecting day-to-day life of families and kids around the world. In addition to taking daily simple precaution such as proper hand hygiene, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised that families put distance among themselves and others in an effort to prevent the spread of covid-19. As a result, businesses and schools are temporary closing.

For many kids, the pandemic creates a unique situation where they found themselves staying home more than normal. Thus, it is important to stay healthy during this uncertain time while navigating social distancing.

Farzam’s mother, Afrooz, stated that like most kids, her son Farzam found it very challenging to practice social distancing at the beginning of the pandemic, as he was accustomed to being friendly and enjoying his friends’ company.

“It is still hard for Farzam not to see and play with his friends, but learning the risks and threats this novel virus brings, he decided to open a new pathway towards his friends on the virtual environment by introducing simple games at home and encouraging his pals and peer group to stay at home,” said Afrooz.

While observing social distancing measures, Farzam said that posting games and indoor activities on his YouTube channel brings him closer to his friends who appreciate his efforts.

“The games were very simple and joyful. I played many of them at home with my sister,” said Fatima, 10, from Montgomery County.

Farzam aims to fight the loneliness of social distancing. He believes that creative games increase fun, generosity and connection with friends during the coronavirus crisis. In his videos, he demonstrates games that are easy and simple. The games do not require anything other than materials available in most households such as paper plates, spoons, and ping-pong balls.

“I improvise games with my dad and try to share these games with my friends and other children around the world who are experiencing the same situation of lockdown at home,” said Farzam.

Adjusting to any new situation can be challenging, especially when it involves the uncertainty of a new virus. In addition to filming YouTube videos about

indoor activities and games, Farzam is adapting to his new daily routine. With school closed, Farzam no longer rushes to school bus as he used to, but rather, he found himself rushing to his laptop in the mornings to join his virtual classroom. He is enjoying the virtual learning experience because he always wanted to know how home schooling works.

“My daily routine has changed, it is not easy, keeping up with school work is kind of challenging as I forget to finish my assignments sometimes because I am at home and feel more relaxed and detached from the school environment. However, it is more relaxing and less stressful,” said Farzam.

Farzam told the Baltimore Times he believes that games and indoor activities can bring families and friends together during these heavy times. Thus, he will continue his regular virtual hangouts by uploading videos and games on his YouTube channel to both challenge and entertain kids worldwide.

Haute-Couture Patternmaker and designer turns her home into a face mask factory


How to Make COVID-19 Fabric Masks: mass-production at home

Realizing she was able to help relieve Philadelphia’s medical community’s shortage of facemasks during the pandemic, Laurel Hoffmann decided to mass-produce masks in her home-based studio.

The Philadelphia medical community faced a shortfall if N95 masks and other equipment, which state officials requested from FEMA to battle coronavirus. Medical institutions, nursing homes, home health aids, and community workers have also requested thousands of additional masks through their website.

When Hoffmann received an email from Elissa Bloom, head of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator, stating that they needed volunteers to make masks for the Philadelphia medical community, she immediately volunteered, as she believes it’s a moral obligation to support health workers who were risking their lives.

“If any of us were to become sick, what the health workers are doing far exceeds anything I’m doing, all I’m doing is making some little masks in the safety of my home,” said Hoffmann. “I am steam-rolling these masks out at rapid fire. All that matters is that they function. It takes me 10 minutes or less, total time, to produce one mask including the cutting. I have made nearly 400 masks, and am still counting.” Her speed is possible because she is using the production patternmaking, layouts and other sample making skills she learned when she worked in the Philadelphia clothing factories back in the late sixties. Over the past 20 plus years, she has authored eight college classroom-tested books. They show how to draft and sew high-end clothing using minimal equipment, both for industry and for personal use, in so doing presenting the hands-on information needed to understand the logic that underlies high-end fashion computer technology.

Completed mask made from donated printed fabric.

Courtesy Photo

Completed mask made from donated printed fabric.

Anne Millman, the director of the Volunteer Initiative at CoverAid PHL told the Baltimore Times that the organization’s task force is divided into two focus areas; one channel is a manufacturing initiative to bring locally made cloth face masks to health care providers and local governments at cost. The other channel, which Hoffmann has been involved in, is the volunteer effort.

“We had over 200 people sign up to sew masks; our effort has been a great success. CoverAID PHL has the ability to receive donations on our website, we have used those funds to purchase supplies for our volunteers,” said Millman.

One of the most important steps in the project was to develop a cloth mask pattern that is approved by health care providers to meet their immediate needs. The organization objectives were to get the correct quantity of masks to the health care providers who needed them most.

“CoverAID PHL has delivered over 5,000 masks since April 1. We have delivered to MD Anderson Cancer Center @ Cooper; Liberty Lutheran; Bancroft; Nursing Care Services,” said Millman.CoverAID PHL developed a team system; while the team leaders help with communications with the volunteers, and help with all technical sewing questions, the volunteer makers agree to make this specific mask, which is a two layer cloth mask that is used in non-technical areas to preserve the PPE that is in critically short supply.

With the help of volunteers, Millman is able to direct the mask deliveries to the places with the most needs. Yet, all team members are facing a serious challenge of contamination due to the virus. Each member of the team is on shelter in place orders, and cannot come into direct contact with each other.

“We have several volunteer drivers who pick up masks from porches and doorsteps of people’s homes, the masks are then delivered to specific health care providers. We have combined this service with our supply distribution,” said Millman. “One of our volunteers, Angela Edmunds, packs orders of supplies for our makers, These packages are then distributed back to our makers by our volunteer driving network, the ability to deliver supplies to our makers has made a huge difference in our ability to sew quantities of masks.”

The Walters: Virtual Learning And Sensory Friendly Museum For Kids With Autism

Visitors at the Walters Art Museum are not only astonished by the museum’s stunning panorama of thousands of years of art, but they are also impressed by the museum’s continuous alliance with the autism community, as well as launching a virtual learning for kids at all ages during this time of uncertainty.

While the sensory program allows families of children with autism the opportunity to access and enjoy public spaces without worry, the virtual museum page is helping kids enlarge their circle of learning during quarantine.

It offers a number of digital resources such as coloring pages, lesson plans and manuscripts inspired by the museum art collection, where kids can dive into thousands of artworks from around the world and across centuries.

“We are trying to make the museum more accessible and welcoming place for everyone, we are providing a quiet space with sensory equipments and visual supports to provide families with more activities and to show parents that their kids are accepted as they are,” said Rebecca Sinel, a manager of the family program at the Walters Art Museum.

Brooke Shilling, 41, has a daughter with autism and is non-verbal. Shilling and her family have been attending Sensory Weekends at the Walters for 18 months.

“The program has fun crafts, manipulatives, sensory break and sensory play areas, and even provide social stories in advance so the kids know what to expect. The program is exceptional and our whole family loves it,” said Shilling.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability, which causes significant social, communication and

behavioral challenges. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 68 children are identified with autism spectrum disorder. This new estimate is roughly 30 percent higher than the previous estimate in 2012 where one in 88 children were identified with autism spectrum disorder. As the number of kids receiving a diagnoses of autism has been rising for years, the stigma around autism still run high as many families with kids with autism often face stereotype and misconception.

Lynn Canterbury, a director at the Forbush School at Glyndon, Maryland, which serves students with emotional disabilities and autism spectrum disorder, believes that stigma about autism was worse five or six years ago than it is now. She thinks that people are more accepting and understanding. Yet, she says that families’ lives and activities can be deeply affected by autism.

“It is difficult for some parents to take their kids in public, when the child is constantly scripting, screaming or flapping. Their normal everyday life and activities have to be adjusted,” said Canterbury. “Maybe if it’s a family of three they have said that one of the adult stayed home with the child with autism and the others go out, unless there is something so specific like programs at the Walters Art Museum where parents can take the entire family.”

Sinel says all the staff at the museum are welcoming and accepting to all families, especially the ones who are sometimes concerned about going to public places because of the perception about their kids behaviors; and how people will look at their kids; stare or yell at their kids; or ask them to leave.

“Through the sensory program, we are assuring families that this is not going to happen and hopefully they will have such a positive experience and come visit the Walters each and every time,” said Sinel.

The Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) at the Kennedy Krieger Institute provides volunteers to facilitate activities at different stations alongside the Walters’ museum educators.

“CARD staff will support the museum educators by providing developmentally appropriate modifications, facilitating communication, and helping children engage with the materials and activities provided,” said Taylor Racicot, a Therapeutic Assistant at the Center For Autism and related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute. “For a place like The Walters, an art gallery, with so many presumed rules about social behaviors, to say, ‘you are welcome here,’ and to back the sentiment up with physical supports is huge in the fight against the social stigma individuals with autism face.”

“The program offers special access to the museum, either before or after hours, and the support of Kennedy Krieger therapists. It is essentially free therapy with excellent therapists and supportive educators in a very special and serene environment,” said Shilling.

With the collaboration of Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) at Kennedy Krieger, the sensory program at the Walters offers different intervention options and provides individualized treatment in small-group settings to children under age six. Children are given opportunities to work with new materials and practice their skills with new people. They even create works of art that are displayed in the Walters during sensory weekends.

“The Walters Sensory program helps to expanding the creative experiences children have and their access to the kinds of community engagement and experiences that neurotypical children have. The program also demonstrates to the larger community that individuals with autism are creative, innovative and deeply appreciative of art forms but they may just express that appreciation differently,” said Racicot.

Families continue attending and enjoying the sensory program at the Walters. Such events carry on with its mission to increase awareness and understanding and eventually fight social stigma that many families and kids with autism experience.

“I am grateful for the Walters program, it is a model of inclusion and should be replicated everywhere,” said Shilling.

Hope For Sobriety: Overcoming Addiction Through Exercise

The men at Otherworld Fitness in Frederick, Maryland, move quickly from bars to climbing walls and elliptical machines as shouts of “Let’s do it!” and “Teamwork guys!” echo through the gym.

Each team is determined to win the competition. Not only are these competitors eager to race and win against each other, but also, most importantly, many of them are hoping to win their battle against opioid addiction.

Timothy Guinan knows firsthand the problems of opioid addiction, which claims more than 130 lives across the country each day. After watching his son struggle to stay sober, he has opened his gym, Otherworld Fitness, to assist others dealing with addiction in hopes that exercise will help them with the healing process.

“The training is physical but there is a lot of belief, mental and spiritual. When they leave here they are so pumped up. They are proud, confident and they believe in themselves again. It’s amazing seeing them coming from ‘low and slow’ to probably the happiest moment in their life without drugs,” said Guinan.


Otherworld Fitness

“The training is physical but there is a lot of belief, mental and spiritual. When they leave here they are so pumped up. They are proud, confident and they believe in themselves again. It’s amazing seeing them coming from ‘low and slow’ to probably the happiest moment in their life without drugs,” said Guinan.

Sume Hatami, 35, a bartender in Baltimore, suffered from addiction for years. He tried heroin and cocaine. As a consequence, Hatami lost his job and his apartment and hit “rock bottom.”

Now that he has been sober for the last 17 months, Hatami recalls the impact of exercise in his recovering path and how it helped decrease his dependency on drugs. Working out continues to benefit him physically, mentally and emotionally.

“When I started working out, everything I did during the day was centered around the gym. Working out gives me a structure and something like an itinerary of my day,” Hatami said.

Hatami says that if he didn’t have such a routine structure, he would probably fall back into drugs.

“Drugs consume your life; you spend almost every second of your day either trying to get drugs, using drugs or finding ways and money to buy more drugs. Basically, it consumes your life; it keeps you extremely busy,” said Hatami.

Opioid abuse is a serious national crisis that impacts public health as well as social and economic welfare. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 68 percent of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid. In 2017, there were 1,985 overdose deaths involving opioids in Maryland, which makes the state rank in the top five for opioid-related overdose deaths. Factors typically surrounding the deaths involve synthetic opioids with illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) that can be found in combination with heroin, counterfeit pills and cocaine.

Some medical studies indicate that exercise is one of the most powerful interventions in overcoming addiction. Research shows that individuals in rehab who engage in regular physical exercise can profit from a reduction in stress levels and drug cravings, as well as an increase in better sleep, higher energy levels, and an improved mood.

Guinan has partnered with a faith-based organization called Helping Up Mission that helps individuals struggling with addiction. He charges the Helping Up Mission participants $19, which is 30 percent of what he usually charges other clients. In the meantime, he says that Otherworld Fitness continues donating money to Helping Up Mission.

“We donate $5 per shirt or hoodie sale to Helping Up Mission. A guesstimate for this year’s donation would be several hundred dollars. I still struggle with paying the rent because everything has come out of my pocket and we are not turning profit just yet,” said Guinan.

Even though the business hasn’t broken even yet, there are a number of impactful stories from participants whose lives have drastically changed from being in the program.

Another participant at Otherworld Fitness, Guinan’s son, Tim Leif, 32, was granted an intern position at Helping Up Mission after being sober for almost two years. At the age of 21, Leif started using prescribed pain killer pills. A few years later, Leif turned to the streets in search of heroin when his doctor stopped the prescribed medicine.

“I can’t even give you a number of how many times I overdosed. My family was scared for my life. They have no idea how many times I ended up in the hospital,” said Leif.

Leif says that drugs took him away from his loved ones. He dismissed and isolated himself. Fortunately, he was able to regain his life back when he started exercising.

“Racing and working out help me escape and be more determined and competitive. Exercise helps me create my foundation physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Leif.

Participants at Otherworld Fitness receive a unique experience at this athletic club in Frederick, Md. The club offers a particular sport known as Obstacle Course Racing (OCR). This competitive sport is growing in popularity each year and requires a special level strength and determination.

In 2010, the Institute for Sport Science and Clinical Biomechanics at the University of Southern Denmark conducted research that indicated that physical exercise can provide important support in the treatment of drug abuse. Also, in 2018, studies the University at Buffalo Research Institute on addiction concluded that exercise can be beneficial as it may help the brain in ways that can support treatment as well as prevention strategies for addiction.

Dr. Anika Alvanzo, a medical director at the Substance Use Disorder Consultation Services at Johns Hopkins Hospital explains that the literature is mixed, concerning whether or not exercise is effective for individuals with addiction.

“I think it depends on the outcome you are looking at. It depends on the substance, the patients’ population, and also, it depends on numbers of variables, such as the type of exercise, the duration of the exercise, and so on,” said Dr. Alvanzo.

Dr. Barbara Mai, a psychiatrist at the Mai Center for Wellness and Energy Therapies in Gaithersburg, Md, says physical activity and workouts bring a healthy challenge into the recovery process.

“Clinically, I have routinely seen that patients who incorporate an exercise plan into their daily health promotion report feeling better mentally, emotionally, and physically. The descriptions may vary, however, the progress is measurable,” said Dr. Mai.

Dr. Mai emphasized the importance of team sports as an outlet for recovering addicts. She believes that team sports equip them with the tools to stay sober after treatment ends.

“Those tools might include writing exercises or self-help therapies. The group mindset regarding supportive community and the priority status to scheduled meeting assists with maintaining commitment not only to personal sobriety, but also to that of friends/group members. And numerous participants of group exercise activities have noted that their progress improves when they are also committed to the success of their group members,” said Dr. Mai.

Even though exercise has proven effective in helping with stress, better sleep, and suppressing drug craving, many medical professionals still think that exercise will have better outcomes on individuals suffering from addiction if it is added to a treatment plan.

“I think that exercise can only be beneficial when added to a treatment program. I will not say that exercise only, but exercise as an adjunct to other processes of the treatment program, such as pharmacotherapy, medications, and individual or group counseling,” said Dr. Alvanzo.

“There have been a number of studies that have shown positive benefits of exercise in respect to withdrawal symptoms and mood symptoms of depression and anxiety. Obviously, if a mood disorder is keen, untreated or asymptomatic, this can lead to substance use,” said Dr. Alvanzo.

Although the verdict is still out about how successful exercise is in treating drug abuse, Otherworld Fitness participant Sume Hatami credited his successful recovery to exercise. He believes that working out definitely helped him with avoiding addiction relapse.

“For me, I believe I would’ve gone back to using drugs if I didn’t start lifting, working out, and running. These things help really impact my life. Even now, I believe if I stop doing what I do every day, there will be a high possibility that I could go back to using drugs,” said Hatami.