By Kate Martin, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
The Asheville City Schools Board of Education demonstrated Thursday why no one should want its members to operate a virtual instruction program without outside help.
While the board eventually decided to close school to in-person instruction for the first nine weeks of school and may be among districts hiring an outside company to handle virtual instruction, the decision followed a chaotic board meeting rife with technical problems.
“We believe it’s imperative to have a slower reopening that allows us to carefully plan and maintain safety protocols for all campuses,” Superintendent Gene Freeman said after the meeting in a press release. The first day of school for the district is Aug. 17.
If the words of the press release rang loud and clear, they starkly contrasted with those spoken at the board meeting earlier Thursday, with a clearly annoyed virtual audience, including parents and teachers, posting sometimes snarky complaints throughout.
Viewers of the Board of Education meeting had difficulty at times understanding a meeting beset with technical goofs, which included reverberating audio, speakers who couldn’t be heard, a wildly swinging camera and, at one point, a Facebook Live video of a laptop screen that displayed a presentation rendered illegible due to screen glare with unintelligibly blared audio.
As speakers took turns talking, their statements were sometimes interrupted by a person imploring them to move closer to the microphone when they talked.
At some point, an unidentified man’s voice said it might be a good idea to start the school year with online-only instruction.
“If you want to go virtual for the first nine weeks, that’s fine,” the masked man said. There were no visible name tags, and the direction the camera pointed did not indicate who spoke.
Another man, or perhaps the same one, lamented that if Asheville students stayed home and others in surrounding districts did, too, “there are going to be around 10,000 kids at home. I can’t just think about me or my family. I have to think about the district as a whole.”
Schools struggling with how to have class
The communication failures in Asheville may have distracted from the meeting content, but the issues at hand remained serious.
The Facebook Live video, for example, was supposed to present the results of an Asheville City Association of Educators survey about teachers’ concerns surrounding returning to work in the middle of a pandemic.
When asked: “At this time, with what you know, do you feel safe going back to school under Plan B proposed by ACS?” nearly four out of five teachers of 300 surveyed said no.
They are not alone.
Other school districts may not be wrestling with the computer gaffes that tripped up Asheville’s board meeting Thursday, but districts statewide are all struggling with when, how or whether to return to in-person instruction.
Many districts are ambivalent about returning to school as the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, continues to spread throughout communities statewide.
Gov. Roy Cooper said last week that districts can choose between having children in school part time or not seeing them in person at all and teaching remotely instead.
News reports suggest at least 1-in-4 students statewide will start their year online only. Many districts are still considering their options. By the end of Thursday’s meeting, Asheville City Schools’ directors decided to go online-only for the first nine weeks of class. Other districts made commitments last week or earlier this week.
The Edmentum virtual choice for parents and districts
Among the choices parents can make is enrolling their child in a “Virtual Academy” run by a company called Edmentum.
Statewide, several districts are using this company to educate children from home during the pandemic. However, families need to commit to a full year of Edmentum instruction, even if leaders determine it’s safe enough to return to the classroom.
The Asheville City school district did not respond to a request for a copy of its contract with Edmentum and declined to respond to questions on deadline for this story.
Following Thursday’s decision, Asheville district leaders indicated they would reassess in-person schooling at a later date.
Similarly, the company did not respond to questions about its contracts with North Carolina schools.
Information online shows districts around the state have opted to allow the company to educate students in their districts through what is called the “Virtual Academy.”
School districts using the company include those in Nash, Orange and Wayne counties, as well as the nation’s second-largest virtual school, the North Carolina Virtual Public School.