CHARLES TOWN – Jefferson County’s public school buildings reopened smoothly for the most part last week to welcome back many students since classrooms were first closed during the pandemic outbreak in March, reported Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson.
But for the school system’s online platform that will serve about 40 percent of the district’s 8,900 students into November, the reopening experience came with hitches for students and parents, Gibson acknowledged during Monday’s Board of Education meeting.
“Our on-site classes have gone very, very well,” she said. “We have had more of a struggle with our virtual program in some ways.”
Gibson wasn’t specific Monday about the problems online students encountered. As school buildings continued to reopen last Tuesday with masked students attending in controlled staggered phases last week and this, she sent a notice of apology to the parents of students exclusively using the online platform, called the Jefferson Virtual Academy.
At least one school, Shepherdstown Middle School, encountered technical problems for students accessing the virtual system since opening.
“As with any large-scale project, not everything went smoothly,” Gibson wrote to parents. “The biggest struggle we have had in returning to school has been the launch of our Jefferson Virtual Academy. I heard from many families regarding their disappointment on the first day of virtual instruction. I take that criticism to heart, and I own that it is warranted. … To be clear, this is not the fault of Jefferson County School staff. They have labored to the point of exhaustion trying to create an entirely new school system for 3,000-plus kids from PK-12. The issue is with my communication and expectations.”
Gibson said part of the challenge in delivering online learning to about 3,000 students involved assisting parents with different computer systems at home and with different levels of technological know-how.
“The difference with virtual is it’s happening in 3,000 different locations with thousands of people with very different levels of understanding of technology and what it’s capable of and how it works,” she said.
School officials are continuing to pursue training for school staff and, in some cases with instructional videos, for parents with online students, the superintendent said. However, some of the challenges have also been successfully directing parents to information and resources already available online to guide them through the virtual learning platform, she said.
One resource, she said, involves a checklist for parents to assist “with maintaining the social-emotional” health of children staying at home away from their peers in classrooms.
School officials are working to connect online with students that they haven’t communicated with since schools were closed during the pandemic in March.
Meanwhile, school officials have so far distributed nearly 1,500 laptop computers available for families to borrow to access online lessons and courses as well as live instruction continues. The school system is still waiting on hundreds of more computers to arrive that were ordered last spring, she said.
“We’re being very strategic about giving devices to those with the greatest need, which are virtual families who have no devices,” she added.
Virtual “hot spots” with Wi-Fi connections set up at the county high schools and in roving mobile vans for families without reliable internet service were performing well, the superintendent said.
A schedule telling where the Wi-Fi buses will be and when is posted on the school system’s website.
Pivoting from the virtual to the physical world, Gibson praised the work of teachers and school service workers handling the reopening of school buildings. Most teachers are instructing students both in classrooms as well as those who selected the virtual platform as their at-home instruction experience.
To transition children back into classroom learning and acclimate them to health-safety rules, the schools are phasing in-person attendance with different groups of students reporting to classes on different days. However, all students enrolled in on-site learning will attend schools and classrooms together for the first time this Friday.
Meanwhile, buses were carrying students to schools safely and on time, Gibson said. School food service workers are distributing federally funded free and reduced-cost meals to children both at schools and at drop-off sites.
Maintaining the health and safety of students and school staff amid the coronavirus outbreak was the biggest objective Gibson has emphasized before and after the reopening. On Monday, the superintendent said the school system’s coronavirus testing and reporting system continued to function extremely well.
So far more than a dozen school staff have been tested and none tested positive for a coronavirus infection, she said.
After increasing its school nursing staff to provide a full-time nurse at all of the 17 schools for reopening day, the school system is still working to fill gaps in its custodial staff, Gibson said. Those gaps could be filled by allowing existing custodians to work extra hours, or as a second resort by contract workers, she said.
“We’ve explored a couple of different options right now,” she said. “We want [if possible] to pay our own people first.”
Gibson said counselors at the county’s two high schools were still working to resolve many class scheduling conflicts that arose in the wake of student social distancing challenges and problems with a software platform used by schools statewide.
Resolving issues with class schedules for seniors facing credit requirements to fulfill for graduation next year will be addressed as a first priority, Gibson said.
“Part of the problem is the school counselors are furiously doing schedules and the phone’s ringing off the hook at the schedule office,” Gibson said.
To help give counselors time to work on students’ schedules, Gibson said she would help respond to parents’ questions and issues that were sent to school officials through the Jefferson Virtual Academy platform.