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BOE discusses how schools are handling COVID-19

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    Participants and attendees at the Board of Education’s Sept. 3 in-person work session with masks and practicing social distancing. DEBBIE LURIE-SMITH/Staff

The Jones County Board of Education held its September work session masked up and socially distanced but intent on continuing its focus on education.

The Sept. 3 meeting was called to order by Board Chairman Ginger Bailey. The main meeting room accommodated about a dozen individuals with space for another dozen in an overflow room across the hall.

The overflow room was equipped with speakers and monitors with the capability of also making presentations from the room.

Virtual Academy

School Superintendent Chuck Gibson said the purpose of the work session was informational, beginning with the Virtual Academy.

Executive Director of 6-12 Curriculum Mary Frances Stewart said the academy has been a team effort. She said the start was a bit challenging, but things are moving along now. The director said grades 9-12 are using Odyssey Ware, which has been used for credit recovery for years. She said using it in credit mode was different, so she signed up her daughter to see in person how it worked.

Stewart displayed the program on the big screen. It started with an instructional video and then showed assignments and questions.

“Students have to read the material and take notes to be prepared for the questions,” she said.

Stewart said the program includes multiple resources in each lesson and visual labs. She said biology even has a visual lab that dissects a frog.

“Students are in teams with direct contact with a teacher,” she said. “They can message the teacher from the screen.”

The director said the program suggests students accomplish 6 percent of the lessons a week to finish the course by the end of the semester.

Bailey said she had received several positive comments about how rigorous the program is.

“You have all worked hard, and we appreciate it,” the chairman said.

Charlotte Foskey talked about the K-8 program that uses Accelerate Education. She said the to-do list of the program sets due dates for assignments and includes a new way for students and teachers to communicate instantly.

“It also includes videos, and students can change the fonts of the text at any time,” she said.

Foskey said every Virtual Academy student has a learning coach, and the program lets the coaches know what the student is working on. She said the Virtual Academy support has its own email address where students or parents can ask for help.

She said the academy has Family Engagement coordinators who have in person sessions to help those at home assisting students.

“They give encouragement and support as well as helping develop skills,” Foskey said.

She said next week they were launching family support groups on zoom.

Special education

Dr. Lauren Sheffield talked to the board about special education students. She said a few students had returned, and distance learning was in place for the other students until they could return to school.

Sheffield said a virtual case manager was available, and they were aware it was going to be a learning experience for all. She said resource folders were put together for what students would have been doing at school.

“It’s been a lot, but it has run pretty smoothly so far,” she said.

Sheffield said some students have been brought into school for therapy and every student has received an iPad.

Enrollment

Clinton Burston, executive director of accountability and school improvement, gave an enrollment comparison of the 2017-21 school years.

The highest enrollment for the five-year period was 5,395 in 2018. This year’s enrollmen is currently at 5,085 with the highest number of no shows at 329.

Burston said many of the no-show students’ situations are unknown at this time, but this is not a normal year. He said a lot of school systems are not open yet, which impedes the follow up process.

“I feel like our enrollment will be back up by the end of the year,” he said.

Burston said the FTE count would happen in October. Full-time equivalent student count is a method of accounting for students for funding purposes.

Bailey asked Executive Director of Student Services Dr. Trevis Killen if some parents were keeping students at home and not enrolling them in school at all.

Killen said that was the case.

Burston said the rate of school attendance was up this year. He said the attendance rate last year was 96.33 and this year it was 96.57.

“We have fewer kids but better attendance,” he said.

Board member Dr. Nancy Nash light-heartedly suggested parents were ready for their kids to come back to school.

Nash asked the serious question of the emotional affects of COVID-19 on students.

“We know some families have no social support and few resources,” she said. “We want to make sure emotional healing doesn’t get lost in all this. Some are more fragile than others.

“We want people to get the help they need.”

The board member said sometimes people just need to vent.

“We need to listen and allow them to say what they need. Education is part of the fabric of this community, and we have to address this,” Nash added.

Bailey said she has been visiting schools to experience the atmosphere.

“Kids are wearing masks; teachers are wearing masks. These people know how to get this done. The atmosphere is positive,” she said.

The chairman said everyone needs to know how important their jobs are.

“I thank the good Lord we have these people who are willing to go the extra mile,” she said. “There hasn’t been enough money printed to compensate Mr. Gibson for all he has done.”

Conversation

Gibson said it has truly been a team effort. He said everyone has stepped up since March.

“Credit lies with the executive cabinet, central office, administrators, teachers, parents and students. We all understand we can’t do things like we did last year.”

– Chuck Gibson, superintendent

The superintendent said positive COVID-19 cases are posted on the school system’s website weekly.

“It puts everything in perspective,” he said.

Gibson said Jones County as a whole has been adding four to five positive cases every day.

He said precautions were in place for the football game, including ample room to spread out and no ticket booths. He said all tickets would be purchased online, and concessions sold at the game would be prepackaged.

Executive Director of Support Services Raymond Braziel said the school system was at the mercy of delivery for some of the school improvements. He said the touchless water fountains were due to be delivered Oct. 29 and flush valves Sept. 29. He said the ventilation enhancements were currently being installed after school and on weekends.

Braziel said delivery of the sneeze guards were expected Sept. 10 at the elementary schools and the week after for the high school.

“Everybody is dealing with COVID-19,” he said.

The director said, until the touchless water fountains are installed, students were being provided with bottled water.

“We have plenty of masks to give students, including child masks for the little ones,” he said. “We don’t hesitate to get anything we think we need to help, and we are in good shape with PPE.”

Stewart said it was important to note that 4,200 students were attending schools in-person, and learning continues for students in quarantine.

“We are not getting behind. Teachers have embraced using the tools that are available,” she said.

Stewart said classes are in line, whether they are in-person or virtual.

“I’m proud of the work going on in the schools. Teachers are remarkable in their support of students,” she said.

The director said teachers are infusing anything students missed last year into this year’s lessons. She said students have multiple options for instruction.

Sign up for the second semester for the virtual academy are in October.

Bailey said her prayer is that ultimately all students would be back on campus.

Stewart said that might not happen.

“I always think there will be a group of students who need to work virtually,” she said.

She noted that, when the Virtual Academy was first opened for sign ups, they expected to have 100 students. To date, the count is 950 students.

Killen said Kinsa Heathcare donated smart thermometers for students. The thermometers are expected to be delivered in October. He said the devices are quick, accurate and offer parent guidance with a connected app.

He said the APEX program services have resumed on all campuses and with Virtual Academy students.

Gibson said testing is expected to go forward this year.

“We will be ready for testing as usual if that’s what we need to do,” he said.

The superintendent said students like the grab-and-go lunches being offered and they enjoy eating lunch in their rooms.