By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Third of local ‘virtual’ students to return face-to-face in January
School officials face continued COVID challenges, gaps in student learning
Assistant Superintendent for School Improvement Teresa Phillips, right, speaks to the Bulloch County Board of Education while Keith Wilkey, left, one of the school system's four social workers, prepares to give his report Thursday on their work in support of "virtual" students. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

Since more than 1,600 students whose parents chose the virtual option first semester have requested that they return to face-to-face classes second semester, the Bulloch County Schools face a shift in teacher assignments for January, amid other challenges.

The 15-campus county school district has 10,891 students according to the most recent available count. When first-semester classes began Aug. 17, about 46% of students were designated to remain at home for virtual instruction. So at that time, only 54% came to school in person.

After an extended summer deadline for parents to choose between the face-to-face and virtual options, administrators discouraged requests for changes during the semester because of the difficulty of controlling class sizes without reassigning teachers. But the district did allow “hardship” transfers for documented reasons such as a job change that would not allow a parent to spend the necessary time at home with a child.

By mid-November, 6,343 students, or 58.1% of the district’s total enrollment, were attending school in person.  Meanwhile, all students and their parents had until Oct. 28 to indicate if they wanted to make a change for second semester.

The families who responded requested that a total of 1,652 currently “virtual” students return to face-to-face instruction. A change in the opposite direction, from in-person to virtual instruction, was requested for only 120 students, for a net change of 1,532 students from virtual programs to face-to-face school, Assistant Superintendent for School Improvement Teresa Phillips recently reported to the Board of Education.

This means that more students will be returning to schools where social distancing was never completely achieved, but where noticeable efforts were made toward it.

“It is our intent to do the very best we can with the social distancing. …,” Phillips said after Thursday evening’s BOE meeting. ”We have talked to our principals about what it’s going to look like in their lunchrooms and playgrounds, and I think we have a good plan for that. It just becomes a little more of a challenge in the classroom.”


Teachers reassigned

Almost all of the previously “virtual” teachers who will be returning to face-to-face instruction knew it by Thursday, Phillips said. The intent was to notify them by the Thanksgiving break, which lasts all of next week.

“When they come back after Thanksgiving, we want everybody to know what they’ll be doing in January,” Phillips said.  “That is our intent. Now we’re going to have to adjust our student numbers from the requests that came in that missed the deadline, so there may be some last-minute December changes.”

Fewer than 50 families submitted additional requests after the Oct. 28 deadline, she said.

The school system staff will try to fulfill those requests but will first accommodate those submitted before the deadline.

“The ones who came in after the deadline, we want to honor their requests,” Phillips said Thursday. “But if we’re already at our maximum class size at a certain school at a certain grade level, and 10 more kids want to come back, we’ve then got to make some decisions. Can we send back a teacher from virtual to go support them?  … We’re trying to make it work.”

Twenty-three elementary school teachers, four middle school teachers and one high school teacher have so far been reassigned from the virtual program to in-person classes beginning in January, BCS Public Relations Director Hayley Greene emailed Friday. These are all general education teachers, with special education teachers not yet included in the count.

Teachers were being notified now so that they have all of December to prepare their classrooms and themselves, Phillips said.

Although virtual students complete their coursework using mainly the interactive learning platform Edgenuity for sixth through 12th grades and Schools PLP for kindergarten through fifth grade, local teachers provide guidance and supplemental learning activities. At the beginning of first semester, almost 200 BCS teachers were set to do this while nearly 500 others continued teaching face-to-face.

As an update on the virtual program, Phillips and other school system staff members narrated presentations at the Board of Education’s Nov. 12 meeting and again during Thursday’s work session.


The survey said …

Of the 943 virtual program parents who responded to an Oct. 6-14 survey, 39% said they were “satisfied” and 11% that they were “extremely satisfied” with the program overall. So that was 50% satisfied to some degree. But 24% answered “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied,” 18% “dissatisfied” and 9% “extremely dissatisfied.”

Since then, parents of roughly 36% of students in the virtual program, 1,652 of the approximately 4,548, have indicated they want them to return to school in person.

Assessment data presented by the staff members also indicated learning deficiencies occurring for many younger students after the March through May pandemic shutdown and apparently continuing for some of those in the virtual program.

School board member April Newkirk called for “a system-wide strategic plan to get them back on track.” Phillips and Superintendent Charles Wilson said principals have been discussing ways to provide additional, personalized instruction, or “differentiation” for students who need it as they return to the classrooms.

Possibilities mentioned include contracted services and the return of more “49 percenters” to work in supplementary teaching roles. These are retired educators who can work less than half-time at school without affecting their retirement pay.

Their part-time jobs were cut during budget tightening last spring, but some were hired back, since state funding was not cut as severely as predicted. Last school year, Bulloch County Schools had 24 of these 49% employees, and 18 have been working during the current semester, said Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Troy Brown.


COVID-19 spike

All of this is being discussed while the number of COVID-19 cases reportedly soars to new heights nationally. Locally and around Georgia, the total number of cases has not returned to the late summer highs, but the school system has experienced a recent spike.

After just six positive cases the last week of October, there were 13 new cases among BCS students and employees the week of Nov. 1-7, then 20 new cases Nov. 8-14, followed by 17 new cases this week.  These resulted in the precautionary two-week home quarantining of 172, then 179 and now 122 individuals during those three weeks, respectively.

A concentration of those cases occurred in the Portal schools.

“We had a massive situation occur at Portal, a small community, a small school, in terms of quarantines,” Wilson said. “The actual number of cases was not rampant, but it was enough that we had a massive amount of quarantines that led to over half of the student face-to-face population being quarantined.”

That last statement was true of the high school portion of Portal Middle High School specifically.

Now, school system leaders are planning for a new semester when more than 7,800 students, or 72% of the countywide enrollment, will be physically present in the schools.

The schools will practice social distancing as far as possible, keep groups of students apart throughout the day where possible, continue to strongly encourage the use of masks and continue to follow Department of Public Health guidelines, Wilson said.

“We’re facing a very challenging situation that we’ve got to figure out how to provide differentiation and meet the needs of these students while we’re also going to be faced with more people coming back into the buildings, and I’m not going to sit here and say  it’s going to be easy,” he said. “We’re going to do our best.”

Sign up for the Herald's free e-newsletter