Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin announced last week that his system would begin the new school year with virtual online learning for the first nine weeks because of concerns over COVID-19, after parents in a survey voted 56% to 44% in favor of that method.
Since then, many in the 44% have been letting Gonsoulin know about their displeasure with the decision, and the superintendent responded to those complaints at the beginning of a called special board of education meeting Tuesday morning.
“My stance on that is that we serve everyone, those who agree and those who disagree,” Gonsoulin said. “The safety and well-being of our more than 35,000 students and more than 4,500 staff members is paramount.”
In this summer’s survey, which received more than 25,000 responses, Gonsoulin said that many feeder patterns — the groups of elementary and middle schools that feed students into a particular high school — voted for virtual learning at rates of 80% or more, while others leaned as heavily the opposite way.
Some of the complaints concerned whether parents would be able to opt for either method, with both virtual and face-to-face learning being available. In last week’s announcement, Gonsoulin said that a split method would not work practically for a system as large as JefCoEd, the second-largest school district in Alabama.
“I know that some of our constituents have said their choice was taken away from them. If you change your mind, every nine weeks you have that opportunity,” Gonsoulin said. “No matter the pathway they choose, we will provide quality education.
“Kids will be on campus, even though it is a remote environment. We have kids participating in sports, in cheerleading on campus. In very small controlled settings, we will have students on campus. … Whenever they come, we will be following the protocol and safety practices,” he said.
JefCoEd schools will continue to prepare for playing fall sports including football and volleyball, Gonsoulin said, “until someone from the Alabama High School Athletic Association says we can’t. The same goes for debate, same goes for robotics.”
WiFi Issues Unresolved
As for plans for JefCoEd to provide “smart buses” that would give internet access to children in rural parts of Jefferson County, Technology Director Laura Ware and her staff tried some experiments recently to see how well the access would work. It didn’t, unless a user was close to the bus.
“In clear outside conditions, 300 feet from the bus the signal went down,” Ware told the board. “In homes, the signal decreased even more. In some of our areas, that would be very problematic. We were able to determine that utilizing those funds would not meet those needs as we thought they would.”
Gonsoulin said that he met recently with other area school superintendents along with County Commissioner Sheila Tyson about alternatives, including the possible use of WiFi access points on utility poles maintained by Alabama Power.
Ware also said that 17,000 Chromebooks have been ordered for students to use in virtual learning, but because many other districts across the nation are doing the same, there are delays in fulfilling the order. Meanwhile, teachers are getting laptop computers to use for online teaching. Additionally, JefCoEd has secured grant funding to help students who receive free or reduced-price lunches to pay for internet access at reduced cost.
The board also approved an increase in internet bandwidth from the Alabama Supercomputer Authority. The extra bandwidth will be fed from the central office “pipe” downline to school sites.
The district will also resume distribution of meals to students, as they did when classes in the 2020-2021 school year ended prematurely. However, not every student will get free meals as they did earlier this year. federal regulations require that those who qualify for reduced-price meals will pay what they normally do, and those who don’t qualify for subsidized meals will pay the full normal cost.
Child Nutrition Director Sonja Anthony said national CNP directors are seeking a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would allow districts to once again provide meals at no cost for all students. Until that time, parents must apply for free or reduced-price meals, with application forms available at schools or on the JefCoEd website, which also includes a link to the online system where parents may deposit money into accounts for meal payments.
The board also approved a resolution allowing Gonsoulin and Chief School Finance Officer Sheila Jones to apply for funds from the Jefferson County coronavirus relief fund, using money granted through the Cares Act by Congress for COVID-19 prevention-related expenses.
Deputy Superintendent Neal Underwood reported to the board that several JefCoEd construction projects are wrapping up. The new Bryant Park Elementary near Chalkville is expected to receive its occupancy permit just before the new school year begins, while projects in Hueytown and McCalla are scheduled to finish in November, and the new Warrior Elementary School should be ready to open by Dec. 1.