As cases of COVID-19 ticked up over the summer, Baldwin County Public Schools (BCBE) saw enrollment in virtual school skyrocket, but little more than a week into the new semester, more than 600 students throughout the system have opted to log off and return to class in person.
Superintendent Eddie Tyler discussed the digital exodus last week during a press conference about the system’s first week of instruction since schools across Alabama closed in March. Flanked by other administrators, he praised the job faculty and staff have done but said reopening dozens of schools and transitioning thousands of other students into online classes hasn’t occurred without “hiccups.”
“I think our employees are doing a marvelous job. Has it been a slow start? Yes, it has. Were some parents upset? Yes, but I think that has lessened,” he said. “I got an email saying we should have expected this. Really? We should have expected 7,000 students to enroll in virtual school? That’s like saying we should have expected the pandemic to be in the state it’s in right now. Nobody expected this.”
Despite the unprecedented situation, Tyler said BCBE’s educators have risen to meet the challenge. Its virtual school went from around 300 students in 2019 to more than 7,000 when classes began last week — requiring an additional 70 teachers, more administrators and new satellite offices.
The virtual classes themselves are based on two platforms: the ACCESS Virtual Learning platform schools around Alabama have used for years and the Schoology platform that implements the new digital curriculum the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) established earlier this year.
Unlike some school systems, BCBE gave parents the option to send their children back to school for in-person classes or enroll them in virtual programs. Even though a majority of families opted for in-person instruction, thousands of students will be learning from home this fall.
However, poor internet connections and technical difficulties have made the switch to virtual classes challenging for some. At least initially, BCBE also struggled to process the influx of students. After a week of classes, some students still hadn’t been assigned a class schedule as of Aug. 20.
One mother who spoke to Lagniappe, but didn’t want her name used in print, said she initially opted to keep her two elementary-aged students at home because of “health concerns,” but quickly ran into problems. She also said the communication from teachers wasn’t always clear.
Eventually, she decided the best course of action was to send her children back for in-person classes.
“It’s hard for me to capture their attention for long, especially when things aren’t streamlined; programs we weren’t allowed access to or that simply had error messages when we tried to do the work,” she said. “I’m not very technologically savvy. Maybe if they had a parents’ virtual workshop prior to the start.”
Last week, BCBE Dean of Academics Renee Carter said more thorough training for parents would have been helpful, but there ultimately wasn’t time. That said, the district has made a “parent portal,” video tutorials and phone support available to parents to make the transition to virtual school smoother.
Carter said there have been challenges moving 7,000 students to virtual learning, but those were expected given the scale of the undertaking. Still, she believes BCBE has the system and educators in place to make sure students’ academic needs are met whether they’re learning at school or from home.
“In a best-case scenario, we would have had time to do some major professional development with parents on what virtual school would look like because it’s a partnership. The school system and parents have a responsibility when students are home on a device,” Carter said. “The main concern I hear is, ‘Our students are getting behind,’ but we built in the first few weeks for dealing with these challenges.”
According to BCSE Assistant Superintendent Hope Zeanah, 603 virtual students — 252 elementary students and 351 secondary students — have made the decision to return to their normal, brick-and-mortar school since classes resumed Aug. 12. According to Tyler, BCBE is still allowing parents to change their child’s enrollment through the first week of September at least.
Asked about the reasons for such a large number of virtual students switching to in-person classes, Zeanah said there were a number of factors that likely impacted parents’ decisions, but said the relatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases reported among BCBE students was likely a factor as well.
While BCBE releases a transparency report, it does not contain a specific number of positive cases.
Instead, it gives a number “COVID-19 absences,” which includes students, teachers and staff members who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, those who may have been exposed to it and those who are showing COVID-19-like symptoms. There were 59 such COVID-19 absences as of Aug. 24 — with the biggest concentrations stemming Spanish Fort, Pine Grove and Foley elementary schools.
“I think fear drove a lot of parents to seek the virtual experience, and so when they see those low numbers coming in daily, I think that has been a big part of bringing them back to brick and mortar,” Zeanah said last Thursday. “Because a lot of people are making many sacrifices to be home with their kids.”
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