Dual-format learning backed by school board

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Bedford County school officials said recently that the system, as well as the state, will expect no less from its nearly 600 students registered for virtual learning than those physically present at school buildings when the doors open Aug. 3.

Due to COVID-19, the school board will give parents the choice to either send their kids back to the regular classroom or distance learn via their personal computers at home. Those registered for virtual learning account for just over 6 percent of the total county student population estimated for fall.

Bedford County School Superintendent Don Embry told board members recently that a lot of time and effort has gone into developing the back-to-school plan-one which he believes will best serve Bedford County families. The board has unanimously approved a dual learning program until such time COVID-19 is history.

“I just hope, come September 1st, this wasn’t all for naught, and we have to go all virtual,” said Embry, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Getting started

The board’s approval of the back-to-school plan comes just in time as teachers start inservice this week.

The first day of school is an abbreviated one, but virtual learning students will still log on that day for attendance purposes. All current school truancy rules also apply and those studying at home will be coded as “D” in their attendance profile in the program Skyward.

All bus routes will operate, though student face masks will only be “highly recommended” according to Embry. (See page 6B today for bus story.)

Some educators have suggested distance learning may prove to be more difficult for some parents, especially those who work. The state requires students to spend at least 6.5 hours daily “in school,” except for kindergarteners who are required to put in only four hours daily.

Virtual students will be monitored daily by their assigned teachers. In order for distance learners to be considered present, they must interact and respond to teacher instructions.

Distance learning students without home computers may check out devices through the school system. However, school officials said they prefer students use their own, when possible. While the school system is working on 1:1 devices, students are generally not allowed to take the devices home.

Students will be provided access to content through their normal class schedule in the virtual learning program. Whether that student will have the same teacher-as if they were attending in person-school officials state that’s going to be a “school specific” decision.

Assistant superintendent Karen Scoggins said Tuesday that students, especially kindergartners, are not expected to spend those required 6.5 hours in straight interaction behind a computer. Daily activities outside the computer screen may include: live class with teacher, viewing recorded activities, participating in online modules/activities, completing activities in consumable materials, chats with teacher/and peers, etc.

‘This is big’

Scoggins advised the board, “This is big. This is not a small undertaking.”

Students will connect in the virtual format and participate in online class discussions with their classroom via video. Participation required includes synchronous learning in an online classroom, where discussions will be held with the teacher through phone, email or online meeting in a virtual format.

If a student does not engage with the class in any way, then the teacher has the right to mark that student absent in Skyward for that class period or day. Digital learning programs being used by the school system in addition to Skyward include Classlink and Thrivist.

The assistant superintendent had discussed with the board earlier in the month several options for virtual learning. “As of right now, we will be sticking with Option A. Our numbers indicate that we do not have enough students to have full-time virtual teachers dedicated to just virtual teaching. That will be a little bit different in Harris Middle School and Central High School.”

She said there are some of those registered virtual learning families without internet connection, so her office has been in contact. The former classroom teacher said the virtual learning application is very explicit about students having access to reliable high speed internet connections.

Scoggins said she’s been in meetings with Harris Middle and Shelbyville Central High principals about a “hybrid virtual,” program-one which she explained occurs when a teacher may have a first period class with 25 virtual kids and the second period class with 25 on-site. Those two schools were chosen, she added, because of their large student populations.

Board member David Brown, who represents the Cascade district, asked Scoggins if she was surprised at the large number of kindergarten kids signed up for virtual learning. She said “yes” and indicated it also has her concerned.

“A 5-year-old virtual student is going to take some work,” she said.

Scoggins, who also supervises the instructional staff, said teachers will be talking specifically with those parents. She said there will need to be specific facilitation pieces to make the virtual learning successful for kindergarten.

Ratios

Board member Diane Neeley asked Scoggins if elementary classroom teachers adding virtual students to their plate will experience reduced student-teacher ratios. Scoggins said right now, the system is expecting classroom teachers to have only one virtual student.

“Our numbers are low enough right now, that we believe that’s the best option. That could change, if our numbers change in the next week. This [virtual application] closes Monday at midnight. On Tuesday morning, we will dedicate our instructional team to flushing out these numbers . . . begin with principals talking to our teachers who are interested. We have some very technology-savvy teachers, who like that piece. We’re going to talk to our teachers about who wants to do that. That’s where we’re going to go first. We’ll roll out from there.”

Scoggins reminded board members how the school system plans to be flexible with those who signed up to do virtual learning. She reiterated that some parents may not be comfortable with instruction roles, once they get into it a few weeks.

“So we want those kids to come back, if they want to come back. Five-year-olds in virtual is concerning.”

School superintendent Embry discussed in a board study session earlier this month that the Central Office will be flexible the first couple weeks, because online learning is new territory for Bedford County parents. He said what the system will not allow students jumping from one learning cohort to another.

Expectations

Bedford County school system posted a letter to parents this week which stated: “This is an incredibly difficult time for our community, and we are so proud of all the ways we have come together already. In the spirit of getting started and learning together, our first day of virtual learning activities will start district-wide on Aug. 3.”

The letter went on to explain to parents what they can expect from virtual learning. This would apply to nearly 600 families which according to school officials, registered their students to learn from home for the first 9 weeks.

Process for attending classes in the Virtual Program

1. Students will check schedule provided by the school. • Specific times will be listed for each class.

• Classes will meet during regular school hours.

2. Teacher will call the student using Microsoft Teams at beginning of class to connect with student.

• Student must be available to attend class virtually.

• Student must have camera turned on to prove attendance.

• The student must have all materials prepared for each class.

3. Families will schedule a time to pick up resources and materials from schools with each school. Schools will have all books and materials needed for the virtual student, awaiting pick up by the family.