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Parents’ virtual choices will leave some schools half-full
Statesboro High, Bulloch’s biggest, slated to have 56% of students attend ‘virtually’
Bulloch County Schools logo BCS

Based on the choices already indicated by parents, when classes start on Aug. 17, six of the 15 schools in Bulloch County’s school system will be roughly half-empty, with more than 50% of their students taught “virtually,” at home.

This includes the largest campus, Statesboro High School, where 904 students, or 56.3% of the 1,605 students whose choices were known as of Friday, are designated to receive instruction virtually, mainly through the online learning platform Edgenuity. Only 701 SHS students were signed up to attend in-person.

Other schools where a majority of students are slated to take classes from home are Langston Chapel Middle, with 60.7% designated for the virtual option; Sallie Zetterower Elementary, with 57%; Langston Chapel Elementary, with 56%; Mattie Lively Elementary, with 54.2%; and William James Middle School, with 51.1% going virtual.

In the nine remaining schools, the majority of students are expected to attend in-person, although some of these schools – especially Mill Creek Elementary with 50.1% traditional and 49.9% virtual – were close to a 50-50 split.

The determination was not yet 100% complete, but the parents of almost 94% of the Bulloch County Schools’ 10,352 known, enrolled students in kindergarten through 12th grade had made a choice. System-wide, 54% of students are designated for traditional, face-to-face schooling, while 46% will be taught virtually.

“The board coming back to providing a choice, I think, is a solid decision, and I think that has kind of been proven here,” Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson said Thursday. “It’s clear that half the people in our community wanted some level of a choice.”

After considering starting school face-to-face on the original Aug. 3 date or delaying to September because of the upsurge in COVID-19 cases in the community, the Bulloch County Board of Education last month delayed to Aug. 17 and approved giving parents the choice.

In a May preliminary survey by school system staff, 54.2% of parents responding had said they were "definitely interested" (25.2%) or "probably interested" (29%) in a fully online option.

“So, I guess I’m not terribly surprised at how the results are coming out,” Wilson said. “I’m kind of more surprised actually, or I’m more interested in, the distribution by school. It’s interesting because it seems to be tracking closely along some socioeconomic lines, and I don’t know why. I’m just making that observation.”

 

Socioeconomic split?

When the possibility of all-virtual school was discussed in May and early June, school administrators expressed concerns about the needs of students from families of lower socioeconomic means, he said.

“The data just prove that kids from lower socioeconomic status will suffer more and need more assistance, especially in our early grades, and the concern at that point was, if we go with a virtual option … how are we going to support these students and make sure they don’t fall farther behind,” Wilson said.

But in the actual choices made by parents, several schools with high percentages of students designated for virtual schooling also have large numbers of students from economically disadvantaged families.

“It is what it is,” Wilson said. “We can’t control that at this point. We’re just going to have to figure out how to do our best to support parents with that (virtual instruction). But we’re going to. That’s what we’re working on now.”

For example, 80% of Langston Chapel Middle School students qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches in 2018-19. At Langston Chapel Elementary, 91% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch that year, and last school year all students on the Langston Chapel campuses were allowed to eat free because of the high percentage who qualified.

At  the other  end of the range, Brooklet Elementary School has the  lowest percentage of students  designated to stay  home and learn in virtual, online classes, 200 students or 28.5% of the 703 BES students counted  Friday. The other 503 Brooklet students, or 71.5% of the total, are signed up to attend face-to-face school.

With 37.5% of its students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, Brooklet Elementary also serves the lowest portion of impoverished families in a county where 60.9% of all students qualify for help with meal costs.

 

Or geographic?

Looked at a different way, the two schools in Portal and Southeast Bulloch High, Southeast Bulloch Middle and their feeder elementary schools in Brooklet, Nevils  and Stilson all have substantial majorities of their students, more than  60%,  designated for traditional, in-person learning.

But all of the schools with a majority of students designated for virtual learning and those with a near 50-50 split are in the Statesboro area, including Statesboro High and its feeder schools.

 

Social distancing

Large numbers of students learning at home will make more space available for social distancing among those attending traditional school, at least in common spaces such as hallways during class changes and in cafeterias, Wilson agreed.

“We will also be trying to do that in our classrooms, but if you think about it, we have teachers assigned to the virtual program; therefore, there are only so many teachers that can be assigned to the kids in the building,” he said. “So you’re still in a classroom together with a teacher, and those classrooms are contained spaces.”

Social distancing will be attempted where possible and strongly encouraged, “but we’re still going to have challenges with it, I think,” he said, “which is why we will continue to encourage everyone to wear masks.”

 

Teacher assignments

Teachers returned to work July 23 and now have two extra weeks for planning and training before classes begin. They don’t all know yet whether they will be teaching face-to-face or working with students virtually.

“We still can’t completely answer it yet,” Wilson said. “We’re working through the details.”

The school system had an application process for teachers who want to work with the virtual program, and also encouraged any whose health status puts them at greater risk to apply to teach this way.

For children in kindergarten through fifth-grade, the virtual option is based in the SchoolsPLP

digital platform. Unlike Edgenuity, which will  be used for middle and high school, Schools PLP is new  to the school district.

Both platforms present digitally recorded lessons by teachers employed by those companies. But Bulloch County Schools teachers will provide guidance and supplemental instruction.

 

Students per teacher

The school system’s guidelines for pupil-teacher ratios for virtual instruction are one teacher per 35 students, all day, in kindergarten and first grade, one teacher for up to 45 students in second and third grades and up to 55 students in fourth and fifth grades, Assistant Superintendent for School Improvement Teresa Phillips said in an email Friday. For sixth through 12th grades, a teacher may be assigned up to 35 students each period, based on six class periods a day, she wrote.

Asked how many hours a day parents of elementary students need to commit to working with their children in virtual school, Phillips said this too would vary depending on grade level and the individual child.

“Parents will be expected to assist children, and we have confidence in our parents that they will do their best to support their child's learning,” she wrote. “Parents will not be expected to serve as their child's teacher but rather as their child's learning coach.”