PICKENS, Ga. — The Pickens County Board of Education focused on COVID-19 and digital learning updates during their September meeting. Six Pickens County principals and the Director of Health Services gave presentations to the board, bringing them up to date with the district’s current COVID-19 related procedures.
Digital Learning in Pickens County
Itslearning, an online education service, has been used in Pickens to assist with digital learning since the beginning of the pandemic. Now that most students are back in school, teachers and administrators have faced new challenges with online learning. However, school faculty members are tackling the task head on.
Jennifer Halko, principal of Hill City Elementary, began by emphasizing their success with itslearning to the board. “I think we are really on the right track with it now,” she noted, “it is just part of our daily use in the classroom.” Halko went on to detail the three scenarios in which itslearning is utilized in the elementary schools: in-person classes, small quarantines and full school closures. Use during completely in-person classes helps the students get accustomed to the program. This often daily practice prepares students for use at home, ensuring they can properly navigate the service. “In that situation, the students are very familiar with itslearning. They have been using it everyday, all year,” Halko ensured the board. She also addressed possible concerns with teacher support, bringing up communication options and live video meets supported through the service.
Board members also raised concern about student accountability and participation while using itslearning. The principals addressed these questions, noting that the program automatically logs the amount of time a student spends actively working. Halko clarified, “We send out those expectations beforehand … we are monitoring their progress toward the standards.” Marla Callahan, principal of Harmony Elementary, also pointed out that students have an opportunity to complete their online work when they return to school.
During his presentation Dr. Chad Flatt, the Pickens Junior High principal, explained how PJHS uses itslearning and reiterated its importance. He told the board, “You have to have something, ‘cause we can’t operate anymore without that sort of necessity.” Principal Chris Wallace of Pickens High School also addressed the BOE. He emphasized teacher feedback during his presentation, sharing the teachers’ opinions of the service. Wallace ended the superintendent report on digital learning by thanking the board for providing itslearning to the schools.
COVID-19 Status Report
District Health Director Gail Smith also addressed the Board of Education during the September meeting. She began her COVID-19 status report saying, “We’ve been in this school year now well over a month, and so it’s time to reevaluate our Covid practices and see if we need to adjust anything.” She pointed out the recent quadrupling of COVID-19 cases among children across the state of Georgia. She then shared that from July 26 through Sept. 2 a total of 1646 individuals in the district either tested positive, were exposed, or were suspected of being COVID-19 positive. Out of the 1646 cases, 316 were confirmed positive through rapid, PCR, or at-home tests.
She then stressed the effectiveness of the district’s mitigation strategies. Out of the 316 confirmed cases, only 57 were determined to be school transmissions. Smith explained, “If we, as a school district, were not doing contact tracing and quarantine, [those confirmed cases] would have been spreading that virus.” Citing the increased infectiousness of the Delta Variant, she told the board those 57 individuals would have infected an additional 342 people at minimum. “We’re saving lives,” Smith said.
Smith then brought up the “attack rate”, or the severity threshold, of COVID-19. She explained that when 3% of a given population tests positive for the flu, mitigation strategies need to be put in place. Comparing the flu to COVID-19, she noted that all Pickens County elementary schools are below the 3% threshold. Smith specifically pointed out Tate Elementary’s 0.61% attack rate. She then noted that during the 2021-2022 school year only two students and one staff member have been hospitalized, and there are no recorded deaths.
At the end of her presentation, Smith highlighted again the importance of community action—vaccinations, masks and mitigation strategies. She concluded the meeting by turning to the community. Smith urged, “If there are any parents listening: the biggest thing we can do to reduce the numbers at these campuses is for the children 12 and up to be vaccinated.”
More time and more training on the online learning platform was a consistent mantra at a Pickens County Board of Education special called meeting today. Teachers and staff have been busy learning to use the new platform for virtual learning. ItsLearning, the new learning management system for schools to use when schools close unexpectantly, was put to quick use when Pickens County made the decision to close all of their schools on Oct.26 after a jump in positive COVID-19 cases and quarantines.
The new system, not to be confused with the Pickens Virtual Academy where students are enrolled specifically for virtual learning, provides teachers a way to continue teaching their normally face-t0-face classes.
Most of the comments were good and most were satisfied with the system, but all agreed they needed more time to get use to the platform and more training to make learning and teaching more efficient.
“We’ve had to teach ourselves some things,” said Anita Walker. “But our teachers have been wonderful to share what they know.”
While the teachers said they would benefit from more training, some expressed concern over parents. In a survey about teachers’ perception of the program in regards to teaching, their students, and parents, they rated parents as mostly uncomfortable with the system. Rated on a 1-10 scale 48 out of 57 or 84-percent of teachers at Pickens High School, 34 out of 44, or 77-percent of teachers at Pickens Junior High School, 23 out of 31, or 74-percent of the teachers at Jasper Middle School, and 52 out of 82, or 63-percent of the combined elementary school teachers scored their parents at five or less on being comfortable with the program.
For special education, the concern was greater.
All the teachers said they could see an improvement over when they first started using ItsLearning, emails and calls have decreased as students, and parents, became more comfortable.
“We can certainly accommodate that,” Townsend told the staff. “The teachers are the backbone of our system-we don’t want to break their backs.”
COVID-19 outbreak and returning to school
Schools will reopen on Monday barring a significant change, Steve Townsend, superintendent said.
Hill City Elementary was the first to close with four, students and staff, were in isolation and 52 were in quarantine, but the rest of the schools quickly followed as the numbers of those who had symptoms increased.
When schools closed, 584 were in quarantine and 27 in isolation.
Projected numbers, based on latest data, indicate the school district as a whole will have two in isolation and seven in quarantined.
Pickens Virtual Academy
The Pickens Virtual Academy, which gives students a chance to do a fully online school, is separate from the online platform that face-to-face students use during unscheduled breaks, has 906 students enrolled in November. This is down 294 students from the 1,200 students who enrolled in August.
Of those, about one-percent or three students moved to another district, four-percent, or about 12 students switched to homeschooling. The remainder, 279 returned to traditional school.
They expect 450 students to attend the virtual academy when the second semester starts in January. Most of those will be returning students for some will be new.
For those continuing in the virtual academy for the second semester, academy staff plan a more proactive approach.
Kelly Flatt, PVA coordinator, said they are asking families for their opinion and they have created a fake student profile so parents can preview the platform. She said as the semester goes on, they are seeing fewer problems and parents are even assisting other parents via social media.
Misti Moore, the contact for kindergarten through fourth grade, said they have started face-to-face tutoring for grades kindergarten through sixth grade. Although each grade has a day specifically for it, they do not turn away anyone who needs help.
“Some come to not get help, but to just see their teachers and other students,” she said.