From the time the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) announced it would only offer virtual classes in the fall, Superintendent Chresal Threadgill acknowledged there would likely be some logistical challenges to setting up remote learning for more than 55,000 students.
Earlier this week, Threadgill sent a message to all MCPSS teachers encouraging them to embrace a year that will be “unlike any other year in the history of public education.” He also reminded teachers the decision to only offer virtual classes for the first nine weeks of school was made with them in mind.
“I know without any doubt that beginning the year remotely is the best option for the Mobile County Public Schools for many reasons, but the most important reason is the safety of our students and each of you,” Threadgill said. “This was a tough decision to make, and to some, not a very popular one, but the decision was made to ensure the health and safety of team MCPSS.”
After weeks preparing, teachers launched live lessons from their classrooms on Tuesday and students logged on for the first time. As predicted, there were some “kinks,” but MCPSS spokesperson Rena Philips said the administrators are working to address those as quickly as they come up.
“Logging on today, we have been noticing some issues, but we’re going to get better as the days go by and teachers and students become more comfortable,” she said. “I was in a couple of classrooms this morning, and I know this has been stressful for families to get to this point, but once those kids log in and see their classmates and teachers and you see the learning taking place again it all seems worth it.”
Philips said MCPSS teachers have done a “phenomenal job” integrating lesson plans and academic standards into online activities and assignments and putting together live lessons students are encouraged to stream in real time, but can also access at a later date.
However, there have been some small issues with the learning management platform Schoology, which implements a new digital curriculum set by the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE). Philips said most of those issues are related to how students access online assignments, adding features like the “live video lessons” from teachers hadn’t had any issues as the first day of classes drew to a close.
Using close to $7 million of funding allocated through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, MCPSS has purchased more than 27,000 devices like Chromebooks, laptops and touchscreen tablets. Along with devices the system already owned, around 40,000 had been distributed to students and families throughout the county as of last week.
It was up to each school to determine how to distribute those devices — with some opting for drive-thru orientations and others having one-on-one, in-person meetings with teachers to talk about the upcoming school year and distribute the devices students would need to participate.
Several thousand Wi-Fi hotspots have been distributed to students and their families as well, but as a backup plan, MCPSS has also outfitted 20 of its buses with Wi-Fi capabilities and will be deploying them to locations throughout the county Monday-Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
A full list of those locations can be seen below:
Officials have also encouraged parents to take advantage of the Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) program launched by the state using $100 million of federal COVID-19 relief funding. That program provides vouchers for free internet service for families of students who meet certain low-income criteria.
During the spring and again before fall classes resumed, MCPSS conducted surveys of parents to see which of its 55,000 students needed devices, and while tens of thousands have since been outfitted with the tools needed to start online learning, thousands of others are still waiting on devices.
According to Philips, MCPSS was still waiting on Tuesday for a shipment of more than 6,000 devices that were initially delayed by customs agents when they arrived in the United States. After that, they were further delayed during shipping due to Hurricane Laura’s impact on Louisiana.
“Like a lot of other people having things delivered, we’ve had some shipping delays, but we’re asking parents to be flexible and patient. We’re not going to count anything against a student if they can’t get online,” Philips said. “The first week of classes we’re mostly going to be doing some orientation and getting to know the Schoology platform. If your child is waiting on a device, it’s going to be OK.”
In mid-July, MCPSS was one of the first large school systems in the state to announce it would be resuming classes virtually — even as neighboring counties opted for hybrid setups that allowed in-person classes to resume while offering a virtual option for students who did not want to return in person.
Last week, Lagniappe reported more than 600 students enrolled in Baldwin County Public Schools’ (BCBE) virtual school opted to return to in-person classes due to technical issues and because of the declining number of COVID-19 cases in the area.
Still, cases have continued to impact the school system. According to transparency reports released by BCBE, 247 “COVID-19 absences,” were reported between Aug. 24 and Aug. 31. Those include any student, teacher or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19 as well as those who may have been exposed to it and those who are showing symptoms.
In MCPSS, the lack of students congregating in person hasn’t prevented COVID-19 from impacting its operations. Just last week, a B.C. Rain football player tested positive for the disease, which resulted in canceled games and the entire team having to isolate for two weeks.
School districts in other parts of the state have also walked back plans to start online-only following the recent decline in cases. Asked whether continuing declines in cases might lead to in-person classes resuming earlier, Philips couldn’t say.
“Right now the plan is to continue with virtual classes,” she said. “We’re going to continue monitoring things for the first quarter and we’ll be in contact with parents if something changes.”
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