FORSYTH COUNTY – The Forsyth County School System resumed the 2020-21 school year Aug. 13 with more than five times the number of students taking virtual classes than chose the option last year.

student using water station

Students bring their own containers from home and use water filling stations instead of water fountains.

Last year Forsyth Schools had approximately 2,000 students taking full- or part-time virtual classes. This year the number grew to nearly 11,000, with about three-quarters fully virtual. The number of virtual learners was highest in elementary grades.

The continuation of education under the threat of COVID-19 challenged district leaders as they worked to develop plans and schedules for constantly shifting numbers. Some students may not have set schedules in the first few weeks of school as the district firms up the numbers of students in school and virtually.

During an Aug. 11 meeting of the Board of Education, members got an update on the challenges facing schools this year.

Lee Ann Rice, director of assessment and accountability, said middle and high school students had until July 31 to opt for in-person or virtual classes. However, the numbers of parents requesting virtual learning continued to come in well after the deadline.

“Many parents have reached out saying they missed the deadline or saw [recent] news and they are fearful,” Rice said. “As much as they can [school administrators] are trying to accommodate them.”

Master schedules created over the summer had to be constantly revised as numbers changed and as staff and resources were shifted.

“It’s definitely been a huge challenge, and we are happy to try and accommodate [these requests] because we know there are trying times,” Superintendent Jeff Bearden said. “[But] we are asking for grace and flexibility and understanding from our parents and community.”

He noted it could be a couple of weeks to iron out the logistics of student schedules and transportation.

Rice also briefed the board on the emphasis on virtual learning for elementary school students this school year.

Last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced all students to learn remotely, gaps were evident in the instruction for elementary-aged students. The school district had an existing 6-12 virtual option but scrambled to ensure learning continued for its younger learners.

Rice said the directive from Bearden back in May was to create a viable K-5 virtual option that met the needs of younger students by August.

“[In May] we did not know what this year would bring, but we were going to make sure we had a virtual option for our families,” Rice said.

The result of weeks of hard work is a “brand new program,” Rice said, centered around clarity, communication and engagement. These were items cited as lacking in the virtual delivery for K-5 students last spring, according to a survey of parents.

Rice said teachers will be fully engaged with their young learners with frequent facetime and interaction. Parents and guardians will be expected to serve as learning coaches to keep the students on task.

Bearden said the development of a full K-12 virtual program was a goal the district had for some time, but never quite accomplished.

“Challenge creates opportunity, and this [pandemic] forced our hand…ready or not, we had to make this happen,” Bearden said. “I know we are building something that will serve this district well for many years to come.”

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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