About 5,000 of the 55,000 students in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools have not logged on to any of the e-learning platforms set up by teachers after Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools in mid-March to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.
Malishai Woodbury, the chairwoman of the school board, said at Tuesday’s meeting that she requested those numbers from school Superintendent Angela Hairston.
“I think that the board and our community would like to hear what we’re doing to accommodate these students,” Woodbury said, directing her question to Nicolette Grant, the district’s chief academic officer.
Woodbury added that the district has a responsibility to figure out what sorts of challenges students may be facing and try to re-engage students who essentially disappeared from classroom rolls when schools moved from brick-and-mortar to virtual classrooms on March 19. The last day of in-person learning was March 13.
Woodbury said after the meeting that she requested the information from Hairston because she is concerned about how many students may be falling behind.
“The number was higher than I thought it would be, to be honest,” she said. “But because I am aware of inequity and the digital divide, I wasn’t shocked, and I was already in this space of, ‘OK, what are we going to do?’ How do we improve the future even in this time of crisis?’ “
Unlike some districts, the local district had the capacity to move to e-learning in a short time frame. Within a few days of the announcement, it loaned about 23,000 devices to students and delivered about 3,300 internet hotspots to students lacking WiFi.
But problems persist. The hotspots use Verizon Wireless, which may not deliver strong signals in some neighborhoods, making connections unreliable.
“If the Verizon signal is strong in these neighborhoods, where hotspots are being used, then the hotspot devices are going to be strong,” said Kevin Sherrill, the district’s chief technology officer. “If it’s poor, then that will be reflected.”
Grant said that the district is asking teachers to reach out to students they haven’t heard from and find out what barriers they might be facing.
“Is it connectivity? Is there a sickness in the family? Is the oldest student trying to help the youngest student and the oldest student can’t finish their work?” Grant said.
“There may be some cases where students may have had to move out of the area if they have been economically impacted.”
School counselors and social workers have also been asked to reach out to students who have not been heard from.
“E-learning is quite an adjustment from traditional learning,” she said.
The strain of e-learning is one reason why the district started Flex Fridays, giving students a break from spending so much time in front of a computer, Grant said.
“We know that the longer they’re on, we need to do something different to keep them engaged,” she said.
Students who have not logged on may be among those considered for a “jump start” or summer bridge program that state education officials have been discussing to give struggling students a boost before the start of the 2020-21 school year.
The program would be for rising first- through fourth-graders who need extra support, though there is some discussion on expanding it to include more grades. Last week, the State Board of Education requested $7 million from the General Assembly to fund such programs throughout the state.
Local school officials are in the early stages of designing its jump start program.
“We’re looking at logistics on whether we’ll have access to buildings for face-to-face (learning), knowing there is some fatigue with e-learning, but we’re also developing a plan for a virtual if that’s the case, if we need to go that route,” Grant said.
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