The masked school board members in the wood-paneled boardroom were evidence that the start to this school year is anything but typical.
The Tuesday afternoon meeting led into the evening as district officials discussed concerns with in-person learning and Alachua Digital Academy. Administrators said they’re working to adjust class sizes and meet technology needs.
There was no public call-in or closed captioning available. Comments could only be delivered in person. Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Clarke wasn’t in attendance.
About 20 people gathered in-person, while the count for live viewers approached 140.
Jennifer Wise, the ACPS K-12 curriculum executive director, spoke about concerns related to the HyFlex model, a format used this school year where teachers simultaneously instruct students in the brick-and-mortar classroom and through the Alachua Digital Academy, the live, virtual learning option.
Thousands of schedule change requests are being processed as students and parents are told they should stick with their selected learning options for the first quarter unless there’s an emergency, Wise said.
For the second day of school, about 1,600 more students had transferred to brick-and-mortar classrooms, wrote ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson in an email.
“Our enrollment doesn’t usually settle down until about two weeks into the school year,” she said.
HyFlex allows for students to continue where they left off if they switch from in-person to Digital Academy classes and vice versa, Wise said. The program met parents’ and teachers’ desires for smaller brick-and-mortar classes.
Wise said some teachers were concerned about large online class sizes. Wise wrote in an email that class sizes range from the single digits to mid-30s. She said schedulers are working to adjust this. There may be tweaks to school schedules to create more solely brick-and-mortar and solely Digital Academy classes. However, she added that it’s possible more HyFlex classes would be created as schedulers spend the coming days and weeks adjusting classes to meet student and teacher needs.
To respond to device and connectivity issues, Wise said ACPS has distributed 2,300 computers and 1,000 hotspots to students.
“There have been some growing pains as we embark on a new way of teaching that is extremely complex,” Wise said.
However, she said there’s more training and support in the works.
Upon the end of Wise’s brief, School Board Chair Eileen Roy noted that issues related to HyFlex might be linked to the limited time to develop school plans because of the state’s emergency order. The order forced the school district to rethink how they opened and push back the school start date for additional teacher planning time.
School Board Vice Chair Leanetta McNealy said she was concerned for overwhelmed first-year teachers and those not well-versed in online teaching.
Wise said that the 165 first-year teachers have mentors and access to professional development and technology coaches.
The school district has also been dealing with constant changes about school reopenings due to a lawsuit from Florida educators against the state. Educators argued that school districts should determine if schools open, but the state argued that they have the power to decide.
The Alachua County Education Association is a local plaintiff in the case that’s racing through the state court system. The association president Carmen Ward said in an interview about the case that they are fighting for local authorities to have control of school openings.
“It was very lightning fast because it was a temporary injunction where there was an unsafe condition for students,” she said.”And so something like that you don’t have months to go through.”
Despite the obstacles faced on the first days of school, McNealy said she’s looking forward to the coming weeks.
“It’s going to be a great year,” she said. “I feel that. I know that.”