Message from the Superintendent 9/24/20
To Our Community:
This school year, Volusia County Schools is focused on rigorous and engaging instruction, safety, and flexibility. While our reopening has been a success in so many ways, we acknowledge there have been some issues that have caused frustration. I am grateful to our families, teachers, administrators, and staff for their extraordinary effort to give students a positive start. I would be remiss if I did not also commend each of our communities for the support they have extended to our schools.
School Board members and I share in your frustrations. The last six months have been an extremely challenging time for all of us. The speedy transformation of our education system to provide more virtual options for families has been a daunting task to say the least. Our staff has worked diligently to address issues and solve problems throughout the reopening. Although many concerns were solved quickly, some are taking more time than anticipated. For that, we sincerely apologize.
Today I want to provide you with an update on where we stand regarding several topics and share our strategies for moving forward.
Volusia Online Learning
One of our greatest challenges has been the massive growth in Volusia Online Learning, our at-your-own-pace virtual learning option that we’ve offered for a number of years. A year ago, VOL had 150 full-time students, mostly high schoolers. Full-time enrollment now stands at 8,203. Nearly half of those are elementary students – enough to populate five complete elementary schools.
We increased our staff to accommodate the growth, but it has still been a huge undertaking to register students, assign teachers, and build schedules. The technology and curriculum platforms we use, primarily the Florida Virtual School and Edgenuity, have likewise experienced heavy growth this school year, and the process of loading students’ courses onto the platforms has taken far longer this year than usual. This is a statewide issue; districts across Florida have seen delays in the start of their virtual classes.
We want to assure our VOL families that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The vast majority of schedules for full-time VOL students are now complete, and most students have started their classes. We are now working on processing courses for part-time VOL students – that is, students who take some of their classes at their regular school of enrollment and then up to four classes (elementary) or five classes (secondary) virtually through VOL. Schedules for part-time VOL students will be completed soon if not already. For part-time students, the regular school of enrollment places students into the class, then parents are provided a link to complete the self-enrollment process.
Hundreds of VOL teachers have been hired and trained, and most students are now engaged with their teachers and classes. Remember, the beauty of VOL is that students are able to work in the platforms at their own pace without distractions such as class transitions. Students will not be penalized for the late start and should have no trouble completing their classes by the end of the semester in January. We have added many resources, including FAQs and instructions, to our Reopening Roadmap website to assist parents and students with accessing their platforms, teachers, and instructional materials.
Our lessons learned were not limited to VOL. Our new virtual learning option – Volusia Live – has taught us many things as well. Some of the lessons learned include required upgrades to our technology infrastructure, an increase in licenses for our educational platform Canvas, and establishment of technology teams to support virtual learning. Between the two virtual options, our Learning Technologies division deployed 5,000 laptops and iPads to students before the start of school.
Volusia Live is completely new this fall. In Volusia Live, students remain at home but follow the same daily class schedule as their classmates who are in traditional school. Students participate in classroom instruction by logging in on a device and engaging with their teacher virtually, using Zoom or Teams (real-time live streaming).
At the elementary level, many teachers are assigned only to virtual students. Although the students continue to be enrolled at their regular school of enrollment, teachers may have students from several schools in their classes. At middle school and high school, and some elementary, some Volusia Live classes are taught by a teacher who is only teaching the class virtually. But many classes are a mix of students who are in the traditional classroom and a group of students who are following along online.
Adapting to that mixed model of instruction and the technology requirements for setting up and operating Volusia Live have been our greatest challenges for this learning option. Both teachers and learners have had to quickly adjust how they work. It’s fair to say it’s been a complete transformation in teaching and learning, and there are challenges with distance learning. Communication and hands-on activities are more difficult, and the teacher’s attention is divided between one group of students in the classroom and the rest on their computer monitor.
Problem-Solving and Solutions
This brings us to solutions. We opened the school year with a technology hotline, tech teams deployed to schools, and live chat support for teachers. Once classes began, we established a Volusia Live Task Force Committee of Volusia Live teachers and district staff in Instructional Technology and Curriculum to quickly identify concerns and implement solutions. We developed Curriculum and Technology Teams that visited the high schools last week and are at middle schools this week and next.
To fully address the challenges of teaching students in the classroom while also teaching students virtually, we have made the decision to restructure our classes so they are no longer mixed. This will necessitate a change in many students’ schedules, and that change will begin at the start of the second grading period in early November. Students may have new teachers for some subjects. In the long run we believe this is the best solution for student success. More information will be forthcoming soon.
Another area that we’ve worked on relates to district assessments that are done each fall. We have a new assessment platform, School City, and we’ve distributed instructions for student use. Students who are experiencing problems during an assessment on School City, such as their screen freezing, should call the Technology Hotline at 386-626-0095 so we can troubleshoot the issue. Our secondary assessment procedures guide offers guidance to teachers about district assessments. And because our students are taking their assessments from home, we have implemented a new proctor agreement for parents and students to ensure students are taking their assessments without assistance from their parents or others.
Health and Safety
I also want to touch on pandemic safety and share with you how that’s been going. We opened our Traditional Classrooms with health and safety guidelines in place, and detailed protocols for handling COVID-19. Our practices emphasize regular disinfecting, social distancing, and mandatory face coverings when social distancing is not possible.
We established an online COVID-19 Data Dashboard through which we report positive COVID-19 cases twice a week – by number of students, number of staff, and locations. We do not publicly identify those impacted for privacy reasons. Student Health Services and our schools work closely with the Volusia County Health Department in the event of a positive case. We follow a checklist for deep cleaning and e-misting of affected classroom spaces. The Data Dashboard, COVID-19 protocols, and other health and safety information is available on our website, www.VCSEDU.org.
Students who test positive or are required to quarantine due to a possible exposure are able to temporarily switch to the Volusia Live learning option so their studies are not disrupted.
We are working closely with our custodial contractor, ABM, to ensure instructional areas are properly disinfected daily. We added nightly inspections, and intensive district inspections are under way with about a third of the facilities inspected so far. Those inspections will continue through the year. We set up a process for teachers and staff to report any cleanliness concerns and, to date, ABM has received 529 requests districtwide – most asking floors and carpets to be cleaned more thoroughly. Cleaning supplies are monitored daily, and we have contracts to ensure our supplies are replenished readily. We will continue to focus on sustaining clean schools and keeping them stocked with supplies.
We are doing everything we can to protect our students, teachers, and staff, while also providing an excellent education to our students. It is our goal to have as normal and successful a school year as possible. The response to the global pandemic is ever-changing, and we must remain flexible and responsive. We will continue to give 100%-and to overcome the challenges we currently face as well as any new problems that emerge.
Distance learning will always have some limitations. And we know in-person teaching and learning while also social distancing is not ideal. But, we will continue to work together and do our very best for the students and teachers of Volusia County Schools. Remember, together we are stronger.
Dr. Carmen J. Balgobin
Superintendent, Volusia County Schools