Classes start in some of the area’s largest school systems this week and next, but the experience of the students is going to be very different from last fall.
Jefferson County schools start Tuesday, Bessemer schools follow on Thursday and Birmingham schools start up Sept. 8. All three are offering virtual only learning for the first nine weeks in an attempt to block the spread of the coronavirus, as are many other schools.
As Jefferson County school officials describe it, the school day will begin with students logging into class, which lets teachers take roll call by seeing who is logged on.
A teacher can go online with his or her entire class in a Zoom-type setting called Webex, which allows video conferencing, online meetings and screen sharing. This synchronous learning allows students to interact with teachers and each other.
“Webex allows us to see each other and to share resources,” said Clay-Chalkville High School teacher Kenslea Carter, who teaches English to ninth and 12th graders.
At other times classes are divided, giving the teachers time to work interactively with five to eight students while other students work on assignments such as reading or testing.
For Jefferson County high schools, block scheduling will remain for six or seven classes, middle schoolers will have a seven-period day and kindergarteners through fifth graders will have classes from 8 a.m. until their 2:55 p.m. dismissal.
“We know that we cannot have students staring at a computer screen for eight hours a day,” said Dr. Oletta Rush, Jefferson County’s deputy school superintendent of teaching and learning. “The screen time for high schoolers is from three to four hours, for middle school, 2½ to three hours, and times vary in elementary schools.”
For instance, a fifth grader would have more screen time than a kindergartener.
Teachers will have office hours for conference calls with students and parents. “There are no face-to-face meetings,” Carter said.
Rush said that if a student logs in at the beginning of the day but does not participate in classes, the student’s parents are contacted, and parents, who have their own user and passwords, can access their child’s work progress through the learning program.
But, Rush said, teachers will interact closely with parents to let them know how the student is doing either through the program or by e-mail or telephone.
Carter said teachers have been meeting throughout the summer in small groups to prepare for the virtual school year.
Most student assessments will be done through writing assignments instead of multiple choice questions in Carter’s English classes.
She said Google has a program that allows students to test themselves, but if they leave the program to look something up, the program shuts down. That assures that students are meeting standards and not searching the internet for the answers.
“Students, teachers, parents and administrators have to be a team,” she said. “We are all still learning, and we have to help parents understand the class.”
Teachers also will troubleshoot students. “If in the first week, a student has not shown up or we haven’t heard from him, we contact the student to see what’s wrong because we want to know how we can best meet his needs.”
“We have honestly learned so much from other teachers through TikTok and Instagram, as strange as that sounds,” Carter said.
Schools across the state have had to face questions about whether to start classes with students on campus, on computer, or some of both. Many school systems have at least some online learning component.
The Alabama State Department of Education spent $14 million for Schools PLP, an online education system, said ALSDE spokesman Edward Crenshaw. The system is available to every school system in the state although some school systems, such as Jefferson County and 80 others, chose to use Schoology.
School systems have the option of using PLP, Schoolology, Google Classroom or combinations of the electronic systems.
Alabama schools received more than $100 million of Cares Act money for a range of education materials from electronic notebooks to broadband/internet access across the state, Crenshaw said. The ALSDE also has budgeted $61 million for school nurses this school year.
Parents Want Answers
“What does a ‘P’ mean?” asked Nicole Captain of Altadena about her son’s grade from last spring’s online classes. “I know ‘P’ is for passing, but it is not the same as A, B, C, D or even F.
“Are they saying that my son got the same grade as a student who got a D? I don’t think they give us enough information.”
Her son, Colton, was in fifth grade last year at Grantswood Elementary and is switching this week Irondale Middle School.
Jefferson County schools spokesman John Huddleston said that in the spring, students in grades K-8 were given pass/fail grades based on their work before schools shut down. “Considering the suddenness of the situation, we felt this was the most equitable way to assign grades,” he said.
But, he said, students this semester will receive an actual grade.
Captain said her son likes the pace of remote learning, “but he misses his friends, socialization and physical education.”
“I am a single mom, working full time and I have to hire someone to make sure my son’s work gets done, both schoolwork and homework,” Captain said. She said she felt that last spring, parents were not given enough information. “I want to know what is expected of a parent. We need more education for parents.
In response, Huddelston said, “If anyone has any specific questions, I would refer them back to their local school or they can check jefcoed.com/remotelearning. There is a detailed remote learning roadmap posted there, and we are continually updating information,” he said. “Teachers will also be communicating daily with their students about assignments and expectations.”
Captain also worried what would happen if the power went out while a student is online.
Huddleston said in the event of power outages, teachers would make accommodations.
But a bigger question might be whether all of the students will be able to get online for their classes.
Internet Access Among the Biggest Challenges
Having virtual students spread throughout the state this fall might put on display the fault lines between those who have internet access and those who don’t.
ALSDE spokesman Crenshaw said work to connect students to broadband is “going along, not without incident, but overall it seems to be going fairly well.”
The governor has provided more than $100 million in grants for any child who would be getting free or reduced cost lunches to have free internet access from one of several providers.
Some school systems have connected communities without internet service through Wi-Fi hot spots on school buses in certain areas or to meeting areas where students can go to acquire internet access, Crenshaw said.
Jefferson County has tried the smart buses but has found them less-than-successful, particularly in rural areas where there is not strong internet access to begin with.
Rush said computer technicians for the schools are continuing their work to resolve internet issues.
Huddleston said school officials also have been gathering data from surveys that were sent out asking who had internet access.
“With the help of principals, we are locating those parties and trying to provide support with hot spots and other assistance,” he said.
Rush said last week that the number of students without internet access in the county was lower than 10%. “But one is too many for us,” she added.
There are sites with free Wi-Fi access. For instance, libraries offer free access, as do many businesses, and UAB has dedicated a parking lot, the Express Lot 4 on Fifth Avenue South and 10th Street South, to provide free Wi-Fi to K-12 students as well as UAB students.
There are tools available to find free internet hotspots, including this WiFi Map.