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District provides clarifications to parents with virtual learning & iReady concerns
Posted 1/26/21

On January 25, Bulloch County Schools received from a parent a list of concerns about the school district's virtual learning program and upcoming iReady testing. The concerns were featured in three letters addressed to State School Superintendent Richard Woods, Dr. Kathleen Toomey of the Georgia Department of Public Health, and a limited group of six local, regional, and state media contacts.


The letters were copied to Bulloch County's Superintendent of Schools, Charles Wilson. Superintendent Wilson has reached out personally to the parent, members of the School Improvement Department have spoken to other concerned parents by telephone, and the school district's Public Relations Department has responded and assisted two of the media entities with their questions and media coverage. 


Bulloch County Schools certainly always welcomes parent feedback. We understand that decisions made by the school district are not always easy to understand. This is especially true during a global pandemic as we continue to find the right balance between instruction and safety, and move forward to keep children engaged in learning and fulfill our mission to the children of Bulloch County.


We want to share the specific concerns that were listed by the parent in the letters, and offer answers and points of clarification.  It is our desire to assist any employees, parents, or community members who may have similar concerns or questions. 


Concern: "BCS central office continues to change their procedures or rules mid-flight, causing severe communication problems and a state of distrust by parents."


Clarification: Superintendent Charles Wilson and his staff do continue to update the school district’s approach to an ever-changing situation (the COVID-19 pandemic).  With a steady focus on why we are all here, everyone in the school district has been expected to be flexible, even when that means adapting weekly or even daily, to meet the needs of students in continuously changing circumstances.  This mindset has been reinforced by Bulloch County Board of Education members in board meetings.  It is unfortunate that, due to the constant changes we are faced with in such abbreviated time frames, communication has not been as good as we would like.  However, the district has attempted to communicate in a timely and forthright manner.  We understand that many people are suffering with anxiety and other challenges to their emotional well being in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and that these conditions may make it more difficult to be satisfied with conditions, regardless of the facts that exist.


Concern: "The Superintendent announced school would be starting virtually for the Fall. Parents complained, so then he changed to allow parent choice. This resulted in SEVERE consequences for the virtual program as it divided already limited resources and left teachers to prepare for in person and virtual students."


Clarification: As Bulloch County Schools completed the 19-20 school year, there was much deliberation about how we would plan for the 20-21 school year.  It was the school district's decision to proceed with improving upon our virtual learning experience so that it would be a viable option for students as we moved forward.  


We incorporated feedback we received from stakeholders in March through May of 2020, regarding a virtual learning program, into our planning for the upcoming school year.  We also waited to find out if there would be further state guidance or requirements related to the upcoming school year.  


Due to such short timing and the intensity of circumstances surrounding our first pandemic, we began to evaluate all reasonable and practical options.  After extensive and careful deliberation between the superintendent and the Bulloch County Board of Education over the summer, the school district made the decision to offer options for students: a face-to-face option; and a virtual program option for students who did not want to return face-to-face. Additionally, we developed a distance-learning option for students enrolled in face-to-face that may have to be out of school for quarantining and/or sickness, allowing them to continue with their academic progress until they were able to return.  School was to begin, according to our previously established school calendar, on August 3, but due to the need for additional preparation, our school start date was pushed back to August 17.   


Teachers were selected for the virtual learning program, and most were assigned completely to virtual program students. In order to offer additional course offerings, there were a small number of teachers who were responsible for face-to-face students and virtual students (some examples included some teachers from these groups: GAA teachers, CTAE teachers, PreK teachers, STEM teachers).


Concern:  "Allowing iReady testing to be virtual in the fall, yet mandating it be in person for the winter. We have been told our students will be locked out of completing any remaining lessons, or even worse, be removed from the virtual program for not completing the iReady assessment."


Clarification: The school district is not aware of any parents being told that they will be locked out of completing any lessons, only that continuing in the virtual learning program may no longer be an option if the school district does not have iReady diagnostic data to support teachers and assist students.


The school district’s original intent in August 2020, was to conduct the fall, winter, and spring iReady assessments for all virtual students in-person.  However, due to the first semester volume of virtual students and other challenges associated with beginning school in a pandemic, the district chose to allow virtual students to take the fall iReady at home.


In early-October, Bulloch County Schools received its fall iReady results from Curriculum and Associates, and became aware of testing anomalies that indicated results were statistically unsound and could not be relied upon to adequately inform student interventions and enrichment.  After sharing this with school principals and soliciting their feedback, it was mutually agreed upon that the school district needed to ensure valid iReady diagnostic results by assessing students at school in a proctored environment.  Working collaboratively with principals through November, the district established a protocol for on site testing.


At the December 10, 2020 Bulloch County Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Charles Wilson and his leadership team updated the Board on this matter, informing them that, virtual students will be required to take assessments, such as the iReady, face-to-face, and that failure to do so may result in students not being permitted to continue in the virtual program.


The school district began communicating about iReady testing on January 18-19, and soon after the school district began receiving feedback from families who were uncomfortable coming in to test. School leaders began having conversations about what accommodations could be made for those with extenuating circumstances and the implications of not having this data.


There are 1,262 K-8 virtual students who need iReady testing. The district has extended the testing window and the deadline for virtual families to sign up for appointment times through February 26, three weeks after the original deadline of February 5. The superintendent will reevaluate the situation after February 26. For those virtual families who are comfortable with these and other safety measures that have already been put into place for on-site iReady testing, we ask that they proceed as planned. 


The district is offering late afternoon, evening, and  weekend appointment times, and at no time will virtual students be tested with face-to-face students. If any virtual families would like to discuss alternative arrangements, they may reach out to Kelly Spence by email or 912.212.8500 to discuss arrangements that best meet their family’s needs. The virtual learning program's parent agreement states that students are expected to “Participate in any state or district required assessments.” 


Concern: It should be noted the State Superintendent has said “"Local districts have authority to chart their course for the upcoming school year. Our role is to support them" and "we must choose compassion over compliance". It should also be noted the “agreement” or parent and student expectations outlines the requirement to participate in testing without unauthorized assistance. Additionally, the GADOE document gives guidance on parents choosing to opt out of state mandated testing.


Clarification: The Georgia Department of Education continues to reference the following: "Neither the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) nor the local district or school has the authority to waive the student assessment requirement mandated by federal and state law (O.C.G.A. § 20-2-281)."


Concern: We understand iReady is not state mandated and therefore should allow for even more flexibility. Many of our surrounding counties are utilizing virtual proctoring. While there were safety precautions outlined for the in person iReady testing, parents are rejecting it because the actions of BCS central office has resulted in distrust from virtual families. Additionally, we reference the 2010 Georgia Code O.C.G.A 20-2-319.1 which states a characteristic of Georgia Virtual School is “not involving on-site interaction”.


Clarification: Bulloch County Schools does not have a virtual school. Instead, we offer a virtual program. Virtual schools, like Georgia Virtual School, may have different guidelines and compliance requirements than a virtual program.


Concern: The Bulloch County Board of Education changed quarantine protocol to allow far less protection for our students and community back in October 2020. This change was reversed due to a response from Dr. Kathleen Toomey with the Georgia Department of Public Health.


Clarification: The Bulloch County Board of Education did make an effort to establish local protocol out of interest in being responsive to our community.  Upon receiving a letter from Commissioner Toomey, the board approved the superintendent’s recommendation to rescind their previous decision.  


Concern: Parents were told it was an expectation for their student to make “adequate progress” in the virtual program, yet leaving that undefined, even after a 2-3 week delay due to learning platform glitches. While students stressed about being behind, they were always reassured by teachers that they were ok or not to worry. At the end of the fall semester, all but 1/8th of the virtual students were mandated to return to face to face or be unenrolled in Bulloch County Schools. It is our understanding that MINIMAL intervention was offered by BCS central office. 


Clarification: Adequate weekly progress is defined by teachers and used as a mechanism to measure student engagement and progress. Parent contacts are made based on weekly progress reports. In addition to teacher contacts, virtual program coordinators and social workers are also involved. A lack of engagement triggers a home visit by social workers.  In addition to how a student is progressing, this measure also allows our school district to ensure that students are safe.


Out of the 4,297 total virtual students, 2,175 students are no longer virtual. Of that number, the parents of 1,578 students chose for them not to remain virtual after the school district again provided parents a choice of platforms for the second semester. There were 597 students that were not allowed to remain in the virtual program due to not making adequate progress.


Concern: The implementation of the virtual platform was nothing short of a disaster. Teachers were not allowed access to the virtual program until a week prior to the beginning of school, making it impossible for them to facilitate a smooth transition. 


Clarification: Teachers were provided access to the virtual platform as soon as it was available. Student registration and rostering to the virtual program had to occur prior to the platform becoming live. Rostering could not be completed until parents made a selection of virtual or face-to-face learning.


Concern: The first two weeks of school were a wash due to not being able to log in, the system being down, or correcting teachers' rosters. 


Clarification: Many students and teachers experienced technical difficulties the first two weeks. A virtual help ticketing system was established and teachers, administrators, technology liaisons, media specialists and district personnel worked together to troubleshoot issues as quickly as possible.


Concern: Virtual and face to face pacing is not aligned. 


Clarification: The district contracted with teachers over the summer to align the pacing guides as close as possible. This was easily accomplished in most courses. We asked teachers to stick to the pacing guides as closely as possible. Additional adjustments were made to a few courses at the end of first semester to more closely align to the face-to-face courses. As with all curriculum, ongoing adjustments will be needed, and we will strive to improve each year.


Concern: Virtual students in middle and high school have MINIMAL to no interaction with local teachers. 


Clarification: In order to accommodate the needs of families, non-synchronous instruction was offered for maximum flexibility. The Edgenuity platform provides the bulk of tier-one instruction. Bulloch County Schools' teachers schedule individual and group meetings with students to provide additional support and intervention.


Concern: Due to multiple technical problems in the (virtual) platform, some students were unable to begin lessons for 2-3 weeks, putting them too far behind to reasonably catch up. This was not taken into consideration when students were forced to return face to face due to "inadequate progress" that was not any fault of their own.


Clarification: This is simply false. Students were given time to catch up and late assignments were not penalized. Progress was determined from weeks 12-15, long after much effort had gone into helping students catch up.


Concern: Students who chose STEM for connection were suddenly removed from it at the start of the Spring semester due to “no longer having a STEM teacher for virtual students”. BCS moved the STEM teacher for in person STEM. 


Clarification: One of our face-to-face teachers had a class period dedicated to STEM during the first semester, but the teacher is not a dedicated STEM teacher.  A large majority of middle school students returned to the face-to-face learning environment for the second semester. As a result, this teacher did not have space in their schedule for virtual STEM. It is common practice for middle schoolers to change elective courses mid-year after the first semester.


Concern: Teachers were forced to change grade levels and subjects between fall and spring semesters, leaving students to have to deal with yet another abrupt change with little to no warning. Some students still did not know who their new teachers were after the new semester had already been in session for several days.


Clarification: Due to many students returning to face-to-face, teachers were needed back at their schools. Each school’s personnel needs were evaluated, and shifts were made to meet student needs. Due to unforeseen circumstances, some teachers were not able to return immediately in January. Substitute teachers were needed for the first few days until the assigned teacher was able resume duties.


Concern: Parents have requested to participate in Board of Education meetings virtually. They were told “there’s no provision for virtual participation”. It should be noted that a Board member has participated virtually. It should also be noted in a separate email we were told “the district office lost trust in zoom”. With zoom being adopted by so many across the country, this is not a zoom problem.


Clarification: Parents do have the option to view board meetings that are live streamed on the district’s website and Facebook page.  Public participation at board meetings is not required to be offered virtually and the board has not chosen to make that adjustment. 


However, this does not prevent parents from submitting concerns to the superintendent and/or board members at any time if they do not want to attend a board meeting, nor does it prevent parents from expressing their concerns on social media, which is a common venue for expressing concerns.  Social distancing is maintained at board meetings, particularly for those who want to do so, and nothing prevents those who want to attend for public participation from doing so in a safe manner.


Concern: There are neighboring counties who are refusing to travel to BCS citing weak COVID19 policies as the reason. This results in a loss of money for athletic programs and the greater Statesboro and Bulloch County communities. This means those individuals don’t buy gas here and don’t eat here. 


Clarification: We recognize that other counties are making choices that align with their preferences and we respect their choices.  Bulloch County Schools is in compliance with all Georgia High School Association guidelines for athletics. Schools who do not travel to games must forfeit the game and we respect the right of other schools and districts to make that choice. We will continue to follow the guidelines provided to us by GHSA to ensure the safety of our athletes and spectators, while also respecting the desire of our community to allow activities that provide opportunities for our students.