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Bulloch Schools to continue virtual program for ’22-’23, with new rules
Limited spaces available with eligibility requirements
HAYLEY GREENE/Bulloch County Schools  Jessica Coffey, an eighth-grade English-language arts teacher in the Bulloch County Schools Virtual Learning Program, talks with her students online about an assignment in which they assume the role of an activist adv
Jessica Coffey, an eighth-grade English-language arts teacher in the Bulloch County Schools Virtual Learning Program, talks with her students online about an assignment in which they assume the role of an activist advocating for a cause and write a speech and create a Google slide presentation. - photo by HAYLEY GREENE | Special to the Herald

For the 2022-2023 school year, the Bulloch County Schools staff still plans to offer an at-home virtual learning option for about 500 students, but with specific limits on the number of “seats” available at each grade level and, for the first time, eligibility requirements.

Interested families may need to apply as soon as a proposed March 7-March 25 application period, but this timeline awaits a final decision and announcement.

Overall, the plan that Assistant Superintendent for School Improvement Teresa Phillips described to the Board of Education will provide virtual schooling for a maximum of 494 regular education students in kindergarten through 12th grade, plus an undetermined number of special education students.

“We looked at our maximum numbers, like how many students did we have when we peaked this year, and then we figured that’s how we could cap it for next year,” Phillips explained after Thursday’s BOE meeting.

For the elementary grades, virtual enrollment will be limited to 24 kindergarteners, 24 first-graders, 24 second-graders, 24 third-graders, 24 fourth-graders and 24 fifth-graders.  Two virtual program teachers will be assigned to each of the six elementary grades. This will be a reduction of three teachers overall, since this year kindergarten, first and second grades were each assigned three regular virtual program teachers.

Middle school virtual program enrollment will be limited to 30 sixth-graders, 30 seventh-graders and 30 eighth-graders. These three grades together have six full-time and one half-time regular virtual program teachers currently and are expected to keep the same number.

Additionally, one Spanish language teacher is assigned to the virtual program for the elementary grades and another to the middle grades as “electives” teachers.

The high school grades, 9-12, together are allotted the most spaces in the program, for up to 260 regular education students. The current assignment of 13 high school regular education teachers to the virtual program would be the same number needed to serve next year’s maximum enrollment.

So, the total would be 34 (or technically 33.5) virtual program regular education teachers, three fewer than this year.

Currently, four special education teachers are also assigned to the virtual program in the high school grades. The number required for next year won’t be known until the program applications are received, Phillips said.

 

Eligibility requirements

To develop the plan for next school year, district office staff members examined the current program and the results of a January survey of its parents and teachers.

The biggest innovation is the set of eligibility requirements.

“For next year we were thinking we will build upon what we did this year, so it will be very similar, so if this year’s virtual program did not work for you, then next year’s probably isn’t going to work for you either, so we’re trying to make sure that we’re setting students up for success,” Phillips said.

The rules will bar students from participating who have been returned to face-to-face instruction during the 2021-2022 school year because of terms of their academic contracts. Participation in all state and district-required assessments is required for eligibility.

This year’s kindergartners, to participate in the virtual program in first grade, must have been recommended for promotion to first grade by their kindergarten teachers. Students now in first through fifth grades must have passed both English language arts and math for the year to participate.

To be eligible, students  in sixth through eighth grades must have passed a minimum  of three of the four core content areas – English, math, science and social studies – for the year. Students in ninth through 12th grades must not have failed more than one virtual program synchronous learning course in any of the four content areas or a world language (Spanish I or II).

 

History of virtual

The current school year’s virtual program was already greatly reduced in size from the 2020-2021 school year, when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the creation of a virtual option that enrolled 4,677 students, or 43% of the Bulloch County Schools’ total headcount at the time, as of Sept. 1, 2020.

That fall, many students either fell behind or never fully participated in that first, hastily planned virtual option, which relied on the interactive online lesson programs Edgenuity for middle and high school courses and SchoolsPLP for the elementary grades. So, for the second semester of that school year, the school district required that many students return to face-to-face instruction, after which 2,182 students remained in the virtual program as of Jan. 6, 2021.

A Virtual Planning Committee then designed a new program for the current school year. The committee developed a handbook for parents and students; set requirements for attendance and synchronous, or real-time, learning sessions; and  introduced academic  contracts that can result in probationary status or required return to face-to-face instruction.

Otherwise, the virtual program now requires a full-year commitment, as will still be the case next school year.

Also in the current year, the school district eliminated the use of SchoolsPLP, reduced the use of Edgenuity and purchased Brightspace, the online learning platform also used by Georgia Southern University.

Whether the program will continue to use Brightspace remains to be decided, Phillips said. In the January survey, 58% of the program’s teachers disagreed with statements asserting that the platform is easy for teachers or students to use.

But 93% of virtual program parents surveyed agreed that the current virtual program, overall, is a good option for their children, compared to just 50% who expressed satisfaction with the original program in fall 2020.

As of Jan. 5, 2022, the program was serving 387 students, or just 3.5% of the Bulloch County Schools’ total enrollment of around 11,000. Those 387 learning  at home  included 112 students in elementary grades, 81 in middle grades and 194 in high school.

The program’s enrollment has declined less than 7% since Sept. 1, when there 415 students participating from home, according to Phillips’ report. But there had been 449 students signed up and 45 teachers originally assigned before the start of school last August.

 

So why continue?

“For some of our high school kids, this is a very good option that has nothing  to do with COVID,” Phillips said. They just have unique situations, and this is how they’re able to successfully get their credits so they can graduate from high school.”

Some middle school students are also thriving with virtual program, she said.

“And I fully intended to phase out the elementary altogether, because I felt like they need to be face-to-face, but we are seeing some successes here, so it’s hard to deny that, and there is still uncertainty about what might happen next year,” Phillips said. “There might be another variant, you just don’t know.”

So the school system staff prefers to continue the program for another year and monitor the data to decide in the future whether to keep it for all grades or phase out portions, she said.

The two experienced principals assigned as the virtual program administrators last summer – Pam Goodman for the elementary grades and hardship applications and Katie Johnson for middle and high school – are expected to continue in those roles. Goodman said she has heard continued interest from program parents at all grade levels and received calls from others asking if the program will still be available.

If the number of applications exceeds the spaces allotted to each grade level, lottery drawings would be held to decide which students participate.

No Board of Education action is required for the plan to move forward, but Phillips asked for board members’ feedback, and some expressed support for continuing the program.

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