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‘Virtual’ parents object to on-campus tests, lax school COVID safeguards
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The Bulloch County Schools, which as of Wednesday had roughly 10% of their total student and employee population on precautionary quarantines for possible coronavirus exposure, do not require face masks to come to school in-person. Social distancing is encouraged but not uniformly achieved.

But the school system is requiring, this semester, that elementary and middle school students taking their classes at home in the virtual program report to school sites in-person to take academic tests known as iReady assessments.

Amid record numbers of COVID-19 cases touching the schools, a group of virtual program parents expressed concerns about that requirement, and what they see as lax COVID-19 precautions, in a letter emailed Sunday to state and local officials and several media organizations.

All eight Bulloch County Board of Education members and Superintendent Charles Wilson were in the recipient list of the email from Michele Martin, mother of a William James Middle School sixth-grader in the virtual program. She and another virtual program mother, Jamie Lott, were the named signatories for a “collective group of Bulloch County School Virtual Parents.”

As of Tuesday, about 40 parents had signed on in support of the letter, Martin said.

“It’s not specifically about iReady assessment and them asking us to go on-site to take those assessments. That’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she told the Statesboro Herald. “The outcome that I want to see is that they allow the virtual parents to have a voice through allowing virtual participation at Board of Education meetings, which they have denied so far, and then I would also like to have them acknowledge the severe communication issues.”

The local version of the letter includes a self-described “laundry list of concerns” dating back to decisions made last summer. Martin and Lott also emailed personalized letters, minus some of the details, to State School Superintendent Richard Woods and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Bulloch County Schools central office staffers have “changed the rules midflight,” Martin said on the phone. “And so we need to have consistent rules. I’m OK with being held to those rules, but when they’re always changing, you can’t hold people accountable to them, so it’s creating a lot of problems.”

She believes that there would be a safe way for children without underlying health issues to be in school face-to-face right now, she added.

“But they’ve  put very minimal precautions in place, and one thing I know that’s resulting in is neighboring counties refusing  to come to our county when, say, Statesboro High is hosting a basketball game, so now we’re losing money over these decisions,” Martin said.


Changes ‘midflight’

Administrators announced two major changes the second week of December that took effect when second semester started Jan. 6.

The biggest change was that about 500 students who had participated in the virtual program and whose parents or guardians had not chosen for them to return to face-to-face instruction were required to do so. Those were in addition to more than 1,600 previously virtual students who returned by parental request.

The “required return” students included those identified by teachers and administrators as not having engaged with the interactive online learning platforms – either Schools PLP for  kindergarten through fifth grade or Edgenuity for sixth through 12th grades – in some subjects for a month or more at a time. Other students were judged not to have made adequate progress.

The other significant change, also announced at the Dec. 10 school board meeting and in notices to parents, was that students in kindergarten through eighth grade who remained in the virtual option would have to go to their schools or to the central office to take the iReady tests.

Administrators cited “testing anomalies that indicated results were statistically unsound and could not be relied upon to adequately inform student interventions and enrichment.”

As Superintendent Wilson acknowledged in an email Tuesday to Martin, this implied that some students had received help while taking the tests at home.

“Yes, there have been instances of parents assisting students and those have been addressed but such situations are not the only reason for our changes,” Wilson wrote.  “We have also attempted to ease the burden on our teachers by utilizing district staff and other personnel to conduct the proctoring.”

The school system’s intent at the beginning of the school year was to have students take the tests in-person, said Hayley Greene, the BCS public relations director. But at-home testing was allowed first semester because of the large number of virtual students “along with all of the other challenges associated with beginning school in a pandemic,” she stated in an email.

The iReady assessments are not state-required tests. Instead, they are required by the local school system to  monitor students’ progress and adjust instruction. The tests are given in the fall, winter and spring.

After initially notifying parents Jan. 18 of appointment times ending Feb.  5, the school district has extended the deadline to get the in-person winter testing done to Feb. 26 and promised to “re-evaluate the situation” then.

From the first, opportunities were offered for testing on evenings or weekends as well as other days, in small, socially distanced groups, Greene said.

There are 1,262 Bulloch County Schools virtual-program students in kindergarten through eighth grade required to take the iReady tests, she reported.


Support group

Jamie Lott, mother of an SHS senior and a Mattie Lively Elementary School fourth-grader, both in the virtual programs, founded an online parent support group in August named Bulloch Virtual Co-op. Its Facebook group now has more than 480 members. This also includes some parents whose children have returned to face-to-face school, Lott said.

“I think that parents, particularly those that are virtual, just don’t feel like our voices are being heard,” she said on the phone. “We felt punished, sort of, from the beginning, and we feel like face-to-face students have greater options than we do.”

In regard to iReady, Lott said she and other parents would like to see the school system offer a “virtually proctored option,” in other words, having students monitored remotely while taking the test.

“We are aware, based on our own experience and also based on conversations with people within the school system, that that is something that’s available for them to be able to do,” Lott said.

Martin, and the group’s letter, mentioned opting out of the tests as another possibility.

“Please know that we respect a parent's decision to opt out of any assessments or testing but without the data we need to inform our teachers and validate other data, we are putting students at a disadvantage,” Wilson wrote to Martin. “We have attempted to be flexible in this approach.”

Lott, whose 12th-grade son reports to Statesboro High in person for band class, as required, said that improved COVID-19 precautions for everyone were also a goal of the letters.

Keeping the illness away from older family members can be a greater concern than the immediate risk to students, she noted.


Precautions sought

“Overall we would like to see a bare minimum of precautions put  in place, like mask wearing, to prevent the  spread or to help mitigate it, anyway, especially for  people who have no choice but to be face-to-face and  for those of us who still have to send a child even just to one class,”  Lott said.

After a record 60 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases among Bulloch County Schools students and employees last week, 51 cases have already been reported this week, through Wednesday.

“We do continue to stand by our position to allow students choices between face to face instruction or virtual instruction, as well as our position on not mandating masks or social distancing,” Wilson wrote to Martin. “However, we do continue to encourage everyone to do these things when possible.”

Wilson and staff members also issued a letter to parents responding point-by-point to concerns stated in the group’s letter. They said the school system “has attempted to communicate in a timely and forthright manner,” but acknowledged the challenges presented by “an ever-changing situation.”


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