By Crystal Burns
In a special called meeting Tuesday, Aug. 18, the Gibson County Special School District unanimously voted to start virtual Fridays for all students on Aug. 28. Students will attend school virtually for nine weeks to give teachers additional time to plan and upload lessons into Schoology, the district’s Digital Learning Academy platform.
Catelyn Cochran, a seventh and eighth grade science teacher at Rutherford School, addressed the board prior to the vote. She asked them to choose virtual Fridays from the five options on the table, saying the additional planning time it affords teachers is “way bigger than us putting documents on Schoology.”
Cochran said families that enrolled their students in the Digital Learning Academy did so with the expectation that teachers would be there for their students just like they are for in-person learners.
“Right now, we can’t do it,” she said. “We can’t. We don’t have it. I’ve cried. I’ve cried and cried and cried because I don’t have it.”
Cochran said she is also concerned for a third cohort of students – those who chose in-person learning but are forced to go virtual for periods of time because they have COVID-19 or have been exposed to COVID-19 and must quarantine. Before in-person school began Aug. 17, the district announced the Yorkville students would start virtually, delaying in-person learning until Aug. 27 due to a positive COVID-19 case among the staff.
With enough time to dig into Schoology and work together to plan and implement the digital curriculum, Cochran said she is confident the district can make virtual learning work for all students.
“I’m begging y’all to put some faith in us when we say we can make this work and we can make it work really, really well with the excellence that this district always has if you’ll give us some time to do it,” she said. “I promise we can.”
In its regularly scheduled board meeting Aug. 13, the board voted to push back the start of virtual learning one week to Monday, Aug. 24 to give teachers more time to prepare. The board also asked Director of Schools Eddie Pruett to meet with his leadership team to determine the best schedule to give teachers additional planning time during the first nine weeks of school.
Pruett said the district team narrowed down the options to five before meeting with principals. Principals unanimously chose Option 5, which makes all students virtual learners on Fridays for nine weeks, he said.
The district also posted a survey for parents and teachers to vote for their preferred option on the district Facebook page and all school Facebook pages. Option 5 received 33.6% of the vote. The total number of votes cast was not reported.
Other options were early dismissal Monday-Friday at 2 p.m., which received 25.7% of the vote; students attend school for half a day on Friday, which received 22.6%; students attend school on Friday on an A/B schedule, which received 7.3%; or parents choose whether to send their children to school on Friday, which received 10.7%.
Pruett noted the district was already receiving criticism from the survey, with parents asking why leaders didn’t plan better. He said when the district began rolling out its virtual option for families uncomfortable sending their children back to school, there were only 280 digital learners expressing interest. When the board voted in July to assign classrooms as usual and put teachers responsible for the online learning of any digital learners assigned to them, the number jumped to 650.
“I appreciate you all coming back and trying to look for some other solutions,” Pruett told the board.
In recommending Option 5, Pruett said, “We want our whole year to go well, and so we have to make sure our teachers are able to do that and we don’t burn them out and we give them the opportunities to do what they need to do. I realize it is an inconvenience on parents, but we have to make sure what happens in the classroom is what’s important.”
Board member Charles Scott made the motion to approve Option 5, and Treva Maitland seconded. During discussion, Benny Boals, who retired from the district after 35 years of teaching, said he received several responses after the survey was published.
“Several of the responses were we’ve got these kids in school, keep them in school and get as much as you can going as long as you can because we may be shut down before long,” he said. “I can see that, but I also feel the teachers’ pain too because I did that 35 years, although not under these circumstances, but we did have other trying times. As I look at all options, I can check them off, and Option 5 would be the best one. I would love to see the kids in school every day, but we’ve got to do I guess what’s best for everyone involved.”
Board Chairman Tom Lannom said it’s important for teachers to understand that the nine Fridays are to be used for planning. For teachers that don’t have digital learners assigned to their classrooms, they are to help their colleagues who do.
“Help somebody or help plan some days for some classes,” Lannom said. “That way everybody’s in the same boat rowing the same way.”
After the meeting, Cochran said the board’s decision lifted a weight from her shoulders. She said her concern in planning lessons for her virtual learners is doing so in a way that is understandable and manageable for them.
“Sometimes it felt like reinventing the wheel,” she said. “Sometimes it didn’t. The content looks different in a digital format.”
Cochran said she is pleased the district can offer the Digital Learning Academy and only wants time for teachers to figure out the program and the best way to deliver content to students.
“It’s an exciting time for education,” she said. “This could be a game changer for a lot of families.”