Need for virtual school days debated by Haleyville School Board

Haleyville Board of Education member Beth McAlpine, seated third from left, noted that students are not benefitting from virtual days. She is shown seated among fellow board members at a recent meeting. From left, Boo Haughton, Kris Burleson, McAlpine, Donna Jones, Board President Chad Tidwell and Superintendent Dr. Holly Sutherland.

HALEYVILLE       -  Differing viewpoints were shared between a member of the Haleyville Board of Education and administrators at Haleyville City Schools, as to why virtual days are still needed and being included in the 2023-2024 school calendar.
During a work session held in conjunction with a dinner for board members and staff in honor of School Board Member  Recognition Month, HCS Superintendent Dr. Holly Sutherland informed the board that input had been received from teachers and staff about the need to have fewer virtual days figured into the calendar for the next school year.
“We wanted to make some adjustments for virtual days,” Sutherland began, addressing board members, administrators as well as special guests at the dinner, held at the high school conference room.
During the current 2022-2023 school year, HCS has six virtual days built into the calendar.   On virtual days, students are not on campus, but do online lessons or worksheets.  Teachers and staff are on campus to provide assistance to students doing online lessons, if needed. Virtual days became a part of the school calendar after the

COVID-19 pandemic, when all state public schools were dismissed  for the last three months of th3 2019-2020 school year.
During the 2020-2021 school year, HCS had to  rely more heavily on virtual days due to increased numbers of absences, either directly or indirectly related to COVID.
Sutherland recently stated that the consensus from teachers and staff was that virtual days remained important.
“We don’t feel like we need as many as we have had in the past,” Sutherland said. “We do feel it is important to still keep virtual learning alive for our kids.”
Sutherland then presented officials with two different school calendars to consider, one containing four virtual days,  two in the first semester and two in the second semester. The second calendar she presented did not contain any virtual days, Sutherland explained.
“We put both of those (calendars) out to our leadership team, as well as our teachers,” said Sutherland, adding that survey data from teachers and staff were collected as to which calendar they preferred.
“Our teachers gave a reason why they felt those were important or not important,” Sutherland said. “When we make a decision, we need to look at all the data from our teachers and our leadership team.”
Although the topic of approving the school calendar for 2023-2024 was not on the agenda for the board meeting held after the work session, Sutherland encouraged board members and administrators to consider the options.
Board members are planning to vote on the school calendar for next year, at their regular meeting Monday, Feb. 27, at 6 p.m. at the high school commons area.
“At the very back is Winston County (Schools’) calendar.  They have eight virtual days,” Sutherland stated.
“We only have four (for the new year) and we have paired those with a holiday or with a weekend,” Sutherland pointed out. “We as a staff feel those are important. From the survey data, our teachers feel those are important.
“But you,, (as board members) are the ultimate decider of the calendar.  I encourage you to look through those and see the comments. We can have further discussion, too,” Sutherland continued.
“Is there any discussion that they (Winston County Schools) might adjust the second half of their calendar?” board member Boo Haughton asked.
“No,” Sutherland responded. “They are having eight (virtual  days) next year, as well.”
“I don’t think Marion County (schools) did virtual this year,” board member Beth McAlpine then stated.
Board member Donna Jones then stated, “A lot of schools are changing the word. Instead of virtual, they are using all these other terms...I thought that was a good idea because with virtual everyone thinks in terms of still dragging it out from the COVID,”  Jones said.
Sutherland noted that one of the terms for virtual days is e-learning.
“We also need to call a spade a spade,” Sutherland remarked. “It is a virtual day.”
McAlpine then pointed out that virtual days are doing more harm than good.
“We are supposed to have 180 instructional days. I think if we have four (virtual days), I think for most of our kids, it will not be an instructional day,” McAlpine pointed out. “I think it is four lost days. But I am not a teacher.”
Sutherland interjected, “That’s why I said you ultimately vote on the calendar. I wanted you to see what the teachers said. I wanted you to have feedback from our staff. I encourage you to talk to our teachers and staff over the month, talk to us and  talk to the reasons why we feel like it’s important.
“But at the end of the day, you vote on which calendar,” Sutherland continued.
A concern has come from parents who work, and have kids at home on virtual days, school officials have said.  Another concern parents have expressed is that teachers load up their children with homework on virtual days, Jones noted.
“We started at one (virtual day) a week, and we went to one a month, then we went to four a semester and now we’re at two a semester, so we have gradually cut that in half throughout the entire process,” Sutherland continued.
“Personally, I am sending a child to college who is going to be interacting a lot online.  In today’s world, if we send kids to work, sometimes, even in a job, they are going to have to do applications,” she continued. “They have to communicate. They are going to have to fill out and take tests online.
“I don’t think it hurts to have some formal practice of doing that,” Sutherland added.
High School Assistant Principal and system STEAM coordinator Candy Garner then spoke out that for new teachers, as well as all teachers, “I felt like when we went virtual during COVID, the one positive thing is that it forced those teachers who were maybe not tech savvy to have to learn how to do that.  I really don’t want us to lose that.
“That keeps everybody in the mindset that, should we ever have to close, you have that as a routine procedure as to what happens and what it looks like,” Garner pointed out.
High School Principal Davey Reed said that virtual days help with employee attendance.
“It’s a cost savings to us,” Reed stated. “They (teachers) are not really missing in-class instruction. They will use one of their sick days on a virtual day.  We’re not paying for a sub if it’s a virtual day.”
Teachers, Reed added, also have to prepare ahead of time for virtual days.
Sutherland added the school’s mentoring program, as well as professional development are done on virtual days.
“Keep in mind that those things (would) have to be after school. They are going to be extra time that teachers are either going to have to stay or come early,” Sutherland said.
“That is a benefit of being able to have the whole district together for required training at the same time on some of those days, and people not having to stay two or three hours after school,” Sutherland added.
Sutherland stressed that none of the input about virtual days given out at the meeting came from administrators, but teachers and staff.
Elementary Principal Tammy Hatton then spoke out that the elementary school has a large number of teachers.
“It costs us so much money to do professional development during the school day,” Hatton stated. “Just one grade level could have as many as eight teachers out.
“You start compounding that, multiplying  the money that is involved, once our ESSER money goes away, we don’t get the opportunity to do those PD (professional development) days because we are in the thousands of dollars immediately, the large number we train,” Hatton added.
ESSER funding, to which Hatton was referring, stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, a federal program administered by the Department of Education in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding provided emergency financial assistance to public schools to provide pandemic learning loss for three years, but is expected to be discontinued, according to school officials.   
Middle School Principal Bo Wilcoxson then emphasized the need to have professional development during virtual days.
McAlpine then responded, “I really feel like it probably is an advantage to the teachers and the staff and the training, but I  like to wonder what percentage of our students actually sit down those four days of the year and have access or do the work they are supposed to do?
“I feel like they are the ones who lose four days instruction,” McAlpine pointed out.
Haughton then asked, “Are we capturing that data? That’s a concern of mine.”
“They have grades and things due that they turn in and those kinds of things on those days,” responded Sutherland.
“Are they turned in on time?” Haughton then asked.
Hatton responded it was turned in just like any homework assignment.
“Our students are told it needs to be turned in by three o’clock, on that virtual day,” Wilcoxson then stated.
Jones spoke out that students who do not have anyone to work with them have an opportunity to get their work completed, and that teachers help students get caught up on work that has to be done virtually.
“We don’t have weather days like we used to,” Jones stated. “So I might point that out, too.”
Sutherland emphasized that virtual days must be counted as an actual day instead of a weather day.
Middle School Assistant Principal Dr. Elyse Aldridge stated she felt students wanted virtual days.
“Like Mr. Wilcoxson will say, If you can do TikTok and you can do YouTube, you can do your virtual work,” Aldridge said.  “Part of the problem is a lot of the parents don’t know how to do the virtual work,” she noted. “They don’t know how to log on and access things.



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