By Dave Ongie, News Editor
At the moment, parents of students attending Johnson City Schools find themselves with a decision to make, and the clock is ticking with the start of school set to begin next month.
Parents have until July 24 to make a final decision on whether to physically send their kids to school or sign them up for a remote learning option that will allow them to attend class virtually from home. The survey can be found on each school’s individual website or at www.jcschools.org. Students not registered as remote learners by July 24 will be registered for a spot in a traditional classroom at their respective school.
Either way, school in Johnson City won’t start until at least Aug. 10 after a unanimous vote by the Johnson City Board of Education to move the start date back one week. The decision was made as active COVID-19 cases in Washington County continue to rise.
As parents weigh the virtual learning option, Johnson City Schools superintendent Dr. Steve Barnett wants to be sure families understand the online learning being put in place for this fall will bear little resemblance to the makeshift virtual learning that took place during the last nine weeks of the 2019-20 school year.
Students learning virtually will be assigned to teachers dedicated solely to teaching online courses during a six-and-a-half hour school day (four hours for kindergarteners). Graded assignments and tests will be administered and parents who choose this option must commit to it for either a nine- or 18-week period.
“You have to hold students accountable for the work, give them grades and make it as close to in-person instruction as you can without them being there in person,” said Barnett, who added that the school system has been building and refining its virtual learning program since May. “When we closed (in the spring), everybody went to a non-graded system. That’s not the case. You’re going to need to turn in work, and it will be graded.”
After Friday’s deadline, Barnett said the school system will look at the numbers and begin assigning some teachers as remote instructors. At Monday’s school board meeting, Barnett said over 1,000 students had already signed up for virtual learning. Teachers designated as online instructors will teach their students from an empty classroom via virtual meeting technology, and there is software in place to facilitate communication and allow students to submit work for grading.
Even though the virtual option will require six-and-a-half hours per school day, Barnett said students in the virtual learning program won’t be sitting in front of a screen all the time. Music, art and physical education classes will exist just as they do for students who opt for the traditional route. Students in grades 5-12 will have access to a “hybrid option” that will allow them to take some classes – band, orchestra, honors English, pre-algebra and algebra – on campus while completing other classes virtually.
While the decision is in the hands of parents as of now, that could change quickly depending on the spread of COVID-19 in our region in the weeks and months ahead. There are measures in place to adapt as needed based on the data gathered by local health officials.
Both the Johnson City and Washington County school systems will operate more or less under the same criteria, a “red, yellow and green” system based on the average of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 Washington County residents. The two school systems developed a cautious re-opening plan in conjunction with the Washington County Regional Health Department that includes temperature checks, the use of masks in common areas, social distancing and stringent cleaning measures.
A recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in Washington County has created some concern about whether in-person classes will be able to start in the near future for students in our area, but Barnett said the number of active cases is just one piece of a larger puzzle.
“If the region is in red, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not going to have in-person schooling,” he said. “We’ve updated our plan and the regional health departments are going to get some information out based just on the school community.”
Barnett said it might be possible that one school with an outbreak would be closed briefly for deep cleaning and contact tracing while the other schools in the district remain open. He also pointed out that many outbreaks in our region have occurred in nursing homes, jails or prisons, which does not accurately reflect the spread of the coronavirus in the community at large.
“There have been some spikes that have been caused by a part of our community having a spike, but it doesn’t really represent our students and staff,” he said.
However, if the current rise of COVID-19 cases in our region continues then all students must start the school year at home, Barnett is confident the teachers, staff and administrators of Johnson City Schools will be up to the task of providing a rigorous education for all students.
“It would be a schedule that is not ideal, but it will be at a higher level than we were able to provide in the spring,” he said.
For more information on the remote learning option as well as other information related to COVID-19, visit www.jcschools.org.