A 68-member committee including Bulloch County School system administrators, teachers, counselors and social workers is planning an at-home virtual learning option for next school year, after several hundred parents who were surveyed expressed interest.
Online notices with links to the survey – meant to indicate initial interest but not a final decision or enrollment – were sent to parents March 5, with a March 10 deadline. Meanwhile, a decline in local COVID-19 case numbers was accelerating.
When the Board of Education met March 11, Assistant Superintendent of School Improvement Teresa Phillips reported that surveyed parents of 659 students said they were “interested” in the virtual program for the 2021-22 term, and parents of exactly 659 more students indicated they “might be” interested. But the school system was continuing to reach out to current virtual-program parents who had not responded.
“Based upon parent interest survey results, we are planning for up to 1,400 virtual learners in the 2021-2022 school year,” Phillips said in an email Wednesday. “Our Virtual Program Committee is meeting during the month of March to create a final plan for virtual learning.”
She noted that many things must be considered, including eligibility requirements, hardship criteria, “synchronous attendance requirements” and what will constitute the “adequate progress” required to remain a virtual learner.
“We intend to have a plan with all major components ready to share by the end of the first week in April,” Phillips wrote.
“Synchronous attendance” means having all students in a class log-in at the same time, which generally was not required for the virtual learning platforms used this school year.
This school year, Bulloch County Schools used mainly the SchoolsPLP interactive online platform for elementary grades and the Edgenuity platform for middle and high school. But local teachers were assigned to monitor students’ progress and provide supplemental learning activities.
What platforms will be used for a virtual program in the 2021-22 term is another facet to be decided.
Board of Education member April Newkirk, an educator of teachers at Georgia Southern University, said she wants any chosen platform to be user-friendly and accredited. She also suggested that no interactive platform at all might be needed, if capable virtual-program teachers are allowed to teach from their own lesson plans using flexible services such as Google Classroom.
“I think that we have some amazingly talented teachers, and you turn them loose on the Google suite and they can change the world,” Newkirk said. “So I think that pinning them down to a platform would be very problematic.”
The committee will use the survey results, along with data on the current enrollment, to determine how many “seats” will be available in the 2021-22 virtual program. This, in turn, will be used to determine how many teachers are needed to staff it.
“We want to determine how many seats are needed – I’m just going to reiterate that – so that we don’t have this fluctuation back and forth and disruption of faculty coming in and out and all the different changes,” Phillips told the board. “It is our intent to have established virtual-program teachers all year long.”
The committee created an online application for teachers wanting to teach in the virtual program. By the March 10 application deadline, 76 teachers had applied. The committee intended to select and notify teachers this week.
Again, the preliminary parent survey was not an application. A virtual-program student application is slated to be opened to families April 12 through May 5. If “virtual” students exceed the number of assigned teachers at a grade level, a drawing will be held for the “seats” available, and other students will be placed on a waiting list, Phillips said.
However, board members expressed interest in also having “hardship case” criteria for families with special reasons for virtual learning.
The 659 students interested in the program and the other 659 who “might be,” together made up 23.2% of students represented in the survey as of March 11. However, even the 1,400 students Phillips suggested this week as an expected maximum would be less than 13% of the Bulloch County Schools’ current total enrollment of about 10,832.
Currently, 2,187 students, or 20.2% of total enrollment, are participating in the virtual program, down from almost half of all enrolled students last August.
In all, 5,678 students’ parents responded to the survey, with parents of almost 76.8% of those students indicating that they were not interested in a virtual program. While parents of 77.6% of currently virtual students participated in the survey, parents of 51.5% of currently face-to-face students also answered it.
Meanwhile, local COVID-19 numbers have been in decline and many teachers have been receiving the vaccine. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Bulloch County Schools had reported one new case so far this week and a total of 609 COVID cases since classes started Aug. 17. After recording 309 cases between Jan. 3 and Feb. 13, the school system has seen 48 total new cases among students and employees since Feb. 1
The number of new COVID-19 cases among the Bulloch County public has also fallen, to the equivalent of 68 cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks. The longstanding goal from the Georgia Department of Public Health has been to have fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 population.
“People may change their minds, and we’ll have to see how things are April-May when they’re doing their applications…,” Phillips said last week. “But I think that virtual is working well for some people and some people would choose to stay in virtual and it have nothing to do with health or pandemic.”
Some parents indicated this in response to a follow-up question in the survey.