In a first day of school unlike any before, less than 56% of the Bulloch County Schools’ 10,697 currently enrolled students showed up in-person Monday, while the rest were expected to begin learning from home, through “virtual” internet-based instruction supplemented by local teachers.
Not every family whose children were signed up for the virtual option made the connection the first day. Meanwhile, for the face-to-face option, concerns remained about potential COVID-19 exposure, and school system officials – in a change from previous statements – stipulated that they will release limited information when confirmed cases occur among school populations.
In a 9 a.m. interview at Sallie Zetterower Elementary School, or SZES, Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson gave something like his traditionally upbeat message for the first morning but also appealed for patience.
“I’m excited for us to be back, and I will tell you that every adult and every child that I have encountered shares that same sentiment,” he said. “I think people are relieved, they’re excited, and everybody I’ve observed, I mean they’re back to business. Students are learning. Teachers are teaching. Everybody has a positive, cooperative attitude.”
During the Board of Education meeting Thursday night, administrators has said that emails giving virtual-instruction teachers access to online platforms for connecting with students had yet to go out, and would be sent Friday. After the start of school was delayed from Aug. 3, teachers had an additional two weeks of pre-planning and received some training in working with the virtual platforms.
But more teachers had to be recruited for that role than originally applied.
Parents who signed their children up for the virtual option were provided orientation sessions. But then some technical difficulties emerged over the weekend, and some students and their parents had trouble logging into the virtual learning platforms, Wilson acknowledged. Assignments and grades in the virtual option are expected on a weekly basis, not daily, he noted.
“So I guess the issue is, just asking everybody to be patient,” Wilson said. “I think with our virtual parents, I’d just remind everyone that this is a weekly pacing guide. We’ve got a couple of days we’re learning here, but we’re not going to leave people hanging. I mean, we’ll figure it out, and we’re going to work with folks.”
The school system has a dedicated virtual-instruction orientation and tech support site at www.bullochschools.org/techsupport. It is also accessible through each individual school’s website.
Behind him, the SZES cafeteria was empty of children and almost empty of tables. Students there will have breakfast and lunch in their rooms each day.
Some other schools in the system are using their cafeterias but are following Wilson’s directive to have no more than 25% of lunchroom seats filled at any time, placing students all on one side of a table and skipping seats. Southeast Bulloch High School allowed students to eat in its cafeteria, with those restrictions, but also at round tables in an outside area where students gathered Monday with no distancing observed.
Countywide, 44.7% of students have been designated for virtual instruction, the other 55.3% for traditional, or “face-to-face,” schooling.
Brooklet Elementary School has the smallest portion of students, 29.6%, designated for virtual instruction. Langston Chapel Middle School has the largest portion of students attending virtually, 59.8%.
Sallie Zetterower Elementary School had a first-day enrollment of 679 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade. But only 319 of those students had been designated by their parents for face-to-face instruction, while 360 students, 53%, were designated for online instruction.
Among the 15 schools in the system, SZES is one of five where more than half of students were designated to participate virtually, rather than face-to-face. Those five, also including Statesboro High, are all in the Statesboro zone.
A ‘virtual’ teacher
With very few exceptions, the school system has assigned each teacher either to face-to-face teaching or to working with students in virtual instruction, but not both. The main online learning platforms, Edgenuity for sixth through 12th grades and SchoolsPLP for elementary school, have built-in teacher elements.
But teachers have been assigned to monitor the progress of students and provide supplemental instruction.
Teachers deemed “medically fragile,” and those who share homes with people who are, were given priority for virtual assignments. Other teachers volunteered, but about half of the “virtual” teachers had to be recruited or assigned from the remaining teacher work force, Wilson said. Some teachers who volunteered didn’t get that role because they were not certified in needed subject areas, he added.
Almost 200 of the Bulloch County Schools’ 690 teachers as of Friday were assigned to work with virtual students.
SZES teacher Susan Parrillo said she “kind of volunteered” to teach virtually. She sees providing interaction for students and keeping them connected with school and friends as part of her role.
“It was something new, too, to step outside of my comfort zone, and we’ll figure it out together,” she said.
Assigned 32 second-graders, she had heard from 12 of them by 9 a.m. Monday, but she had another online “meet and greet” advertised to parents in the afternoon.
“The first week is a whole new learning process for everybody, me and them, because I know they’re still having issues signing on, logging on, I’m going to have to make phone calls and see where they’re at, where I can help them, try to troubleshoot without being physically there,” Parrillo said.
She will use the additional online resources Reflex Math and the Epic books site and said she loves to read books to children and will read to her online students.
At 3:30 p.m., Wilson reported that the day had gone smoothly and that some of the weekend log-in issues had been resolved. He also reported a first day free of any known cases of COVID-19 in the schools.
“We’ve not become aware of any cases that have been identified today,” Wilson said.
He and school system Public Relations Director Hayley Greene had previously said that the school system would not make numbers of COVID-19 cases public unless told to do so by the Georgia Department of Public Health. But a DPH spokesperson, in turn, had said that releasing information would be up to the school system, unless the department needed help locating people who need to quarantine or self-isolate.
After consulting further with the DPH, Wilson informed the Statesboro Herald on Friday that his position on this was changing. After school nurses follow protocols to inform DPH for contact tracing, if a case is confirmed, the school system “will inform the public of confirmed cases in our schools, as well as any resulting action regarding quarantine” of students or employees, he said Monday.
However, the Bulloch County Schools “will not release specific identifiable information” or “participate in or facilitate efforts to identify, shame, target, bully, or harass our students/employees,” Wilson stated in writing.
“It’s difficult for us to go back to previous weeks and days to start saying what we knew and didn’t know,” he said when asked about unconfirmed reports of employees with COVID-19 reporting for work during pre-planning.
Greene said no one is now in school who is known to have COVID-19 or who has not properly quarantined.