Russell County Schools: Students are all virtual

Russell County Schools: Students are all virtual

Face-to-face instruction begins Sept. 10

When the Russell County School system polled parents this summer about school attendance, approximately 60 percent of parents responded that they wanted their children to attend only virtual school for the time being due to the pandemic. 

“When we got our survey results back…I was surprised,” said Brenda Coley, superintendent of Russell County Schools. “Only 40 percent chose face-to-face. We were watching the Alabama Department of Public Health dashboard because Alabama was one of the hot spots, so we were a very high-risk area.”

After considering the survey results, the school board voted for all virtual classes, which began August 10. Unless circumstances change, face-to-face classes for Russell County schools should start Sept. 10. 

Time has been a factor in the decision for Russell County to do only virtual school. Coley said the school system has had trouble getting supplies, and they’ve had to deal with a lot of backorders. Also, the system has had to invest a lot of time in professional development for the teachers because of the new teaching challenges, as well as managing four new budgets from the special CARES Act funding that helps with pandemic-related costs. There were other time-related factors as well. 

“We were looking at our various budgets to hire additional staff,” Coley said. “We wanted all those personnel to be in place when students arrive on campus. Last year, we only had four nurses. Now, we’ll have a nurse at every site. We’ll have two additional nurses. We felt like it would be best to go virtual to make sure we had all of our devices and supplies, and to have adequate time to make sure the buildings were clean and ready to receive the kids. But the biggest reason that we delayed it was mainly just because we felt like it would be safer.”

According to Coley, the school system will do another evaluation closer to the end of the nine weeks in October and send out another attendance preference survey to parents at that time.

As for how teachers have been handling the new teaching environment, Coley said there’s been highs and lows. 

“It’s emotional. Change is hard for most people,” Coley said. “We just try to encourage our teachers on a daily basis.  The biggest hurdle is just trying to get over the unknowns. It’s new and different. Once teachers get the support and professional development, they get more comfortable. We’ve noticed a lot of improvement. You can’t tell teachers they’ve got to do this and not give them the resources and support that they need.”

The teachers are working on site now so they can better collaborate. 

“They can work together…they can share, and we can make sure during planning time that there is much more professional development opportunities. I feel that teachers are building their confidence. I think we are so much better this go around than we were in the spring.”

Coley said the county school system faces more challenges with such things as Internet connec-tivity. 

“We are so spread out. Some students don’t have Internet capability,” Coley said. “Some families don’t have Internet because they’re in a location that doesn’t have cable. We’ve ordered Cradlepoints, and those have been working well.”

Cradlepoint is the name of a device that transforms a cellular phone into a Wi-Fi access point. Each device costs approximately $1,000, and the school system purchased 60 of them for a total of $60,000. 

The school system is also working to make sure that all students have their own Chromebooks. They are almost at their goal, but are awaiting backordered devices. Currently, there are only 30 students left on the waiting list. 

“We have enough money. We have an awesome technology department. They are amazing,” Coley said. “We were well prepared.”

As for when face-to-face school starts, pandemic safety precautions will be in place. All employees will be screened in the beginning of the day and will wear masks, if still required. All teachers will also have thermometers for checking students. There will also be hand sanitizer stations and social distancing requirements. 

Breakfast and lunch will be served in the class-rooms, and both classrooms and buses will have assigned seating. There will be no assemblies or group activities either. 

“We want to make it work,” Coley said. “We want to keep our buildings open. I feel like if we enforce the plan and make sure everybody understands, I think it’s going to work. We can get kids back in school because nothing will ever replace face-to-face.”