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WCS school board discusses online learning issues, additional staff

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Jason Golden reopening announcement

The Williamson County Schools Board of Education approved the use of funding for additional tech and communication positions. The funding must be officially granted by the Williamson County Board of Commissioners at its meeting on Monday, Sept. 14.

The Williamson County Schools Board of Education called a special meeting Wednesday evening to discuss funding new health and technology positions, but not before audio troubles struck the livestream of the meeting.

The irony was not lost on the families tuned in remotely.

After a rocky start, the livestream was up and running again about an hour into the four-hour meeting. The full meeting can be viewed on the WCS website.

District worries about ‘exhausting’ teaching environment 

The primary business before the board included passing funding for two secretary positions, which are meant to ease communication for those involved in the WCS Online program, two data processing personnel to assist with technology issues and one human resources professional to assist with substitute teacher recruitment.

WCS Superintendent Jason Golden said teachers submitted 76 requests for subs on Wednesday and only 33 were filled, leaving the remaining 43 classes to be manned by other school staff or redistributed. Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools Leigh Webb said teachers at the middle- and high-school level have said they’ve struggled to catch up this year when substitutes don’t fill in.

Webb shared 642 teachers are involved in WCS Online in some capacity. While the 145 elementary school teachers involved in online learning are dedicated fully to their online courses, most middle- and high-school teachers are split between online and traditional classes due to funding and staffing shortages this year.

Of 136 middle-school teachers involved in WCS Online, 46 are full-time online, 90 are split between online and traditional classes, and 49 are teaching a full on-campus schedule plus supplemental online material. For high school, 14 teachers are full-time online, 323 are split and 124 are full-time in the classroom with online supplements.

Golden said recruiting substitutes this year seems to require more of a personal touch with personal phone calls, which is what the new HR position will focus on.

Aside from struggling to fill the gaps when substitutes are unavailable, Webb said teachers are overwhelmed in 2020.

“The time that it takes to teach in this environment is exhausting, so we do worry about longevity for our teachers,” she said. 

Teacher, parent concerns largely match

Webb and Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Schools Juli Oyer also shared the top concerns that both teachers and parents have expressed regarding WCS Online.

Prior to the meeting, the school board members and WCS staff were met by parents picketing outside, expressing their concerns about the online program. Many of these parents were among the 1,000-plus who have petitioned for the schools to halt grading for online students until technical issues have been resolved.

For teachers, Webb and Oyer said the greatest need is time between classes, which so far has been taken up by communicating with families, waiting on answers to questions, working out technology issues and more rather than primarily lesson planning. Golden added the mass amount of public communication during the pandemic has been difficult for the district to wade through in general.

“We operate very lean, and the volume of communication that we’re receiving now and the needs of our families have gone up, and it’s important for us to find a way to at least mitigate that staffing so that we can respond better,” Golden said.

Golden said the new secretary and tech positions will hopefully help in this area.

Another teacher concern, which is also a top parent concern, is issues with Edgenuity, a virtual learning platform the district is using for its online students.

Teachers told the district in a survey their comfort level with the program is around 65%, and many teachers want help and/or more professional development.

The online petition parents created in hopes of halting grading states: “Parents and students had limited information on Schoology and Edgenuity and teachers appeared to be learning this as we go. It’s unfair for students to be graded while they are basically the guinea pigs for this onboarding and training process.”

District 3 board member Eliot Mitchell recommended putting out training videos or Zoom opportunities to coach students and parents in these programs.

Webb shared when WCS Online began, many courses were not created in-house. However, as the program progressed, WCS began only using courses that WCS built.

With the immediate need for online options that the pandemic presented, WCS Online has reverted to using many non-WCS courses through Edgenuity, and while the courses are customizable to an extent, Webb said the plan is to revert to WCS-built courses only after the pandemic.

District staff continued to stress that a major pressing issue is creating more time for teachers, and Golden narrowed the options down to requesting funding for more positions or clearing out other things in teachers’ schedules to grant them more time.

The school board will meet again for a regular work session on Thursday, Sept. 17, which will be streamed live on the WCS website at 6 p.m. For more information, visit WCS.edu.

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