The Lebanon Special School District hopes to have students back in school Aug. 10, but officials are working on a Virtual Academy program for those worried about coming back to class amid COVID-19.

Director of Teaching and Learning Pam Sampson said 26 teachers and an estimated 349 students have shown interest in the program so far. Signups would commit students to the Virtual Academy through December at minimum, and a registration deadline is expected soon.

“Because of what we’ve done in our district since 2014, we feel very equipped to handle a virtual situation,” Director of Schools Scott Benson said. “We’re going to do it all in-house. We’re going to use our existing teachers, we’re going to use our existing administrators in this office to help support.”

The district has purchased new technology to help with the program, and a parent or family member would be required to provide instructional support for Virtual Academy students during school hours.

“There’s also the responsibility of the parent as being a learning coach to help that child when they’re not online with the teacher,” Sampson said. “We do not want a child sitting at the computer all day. They need both types of learning, so it’s going to take the parent or guardian working with a child and then our teachers working with them online.”

LSSD plans to use remote learning programs like Seesaw to connect teachers with students and parents. Attendance will be tracked through logins to those programs and daily Zoom sessions with teachers.

“We’ll be able to communicate with parents, teachers can work real-time with students through document cameras, through lessons they’re supplying, and students can video themselves to send that back to the teacher,” Sampson said. “You can watch, you can read, you can go over lessons with them.”

According to Sampson, the Virtual Academy will include online group work individual assignments using textbooks, readers and manipulatives. Depending on interest, teachers may work with larger class sizes and multiple grade levels.

Benson estimated that 90% of families in the district have home internet connections, and said LSSD plans to provide devices to fill the gap.

“We’re looking at several options right now for those families who do not have connectivity,” he said. “One option would be hotspots. That’s a good option and a fairly inexpensive option, but the biggest drawback for us would be that everything they do online would not be filtered through our filtering system.”

Student Services Administrator Mike Kurtz said that does not mean students would have unrestricted internet access, but that a third party would be managing the filter as opposed to a provider like AT&T or Verizon.

“The hotspot itself is locked down, and then there’s a software that we can add on,” he said, noting that they could only be used for education. “That’s why they’re more expensive, that we can add on that we go in and lock it down even further.”

Benson said the district is also considering working with mobile technology company Kajeet to provide Chromebooks with built-in connectivity.

To help transition into the 2020-21 school year, LSSD also plans to use its $543,000 in federal CARES Act funding for technology upgrades.

“Technology’s going to be a large line item for us this year as we are preparing for the upcoming school year,” Benson said. “We’ve actually already sent in our plan and been approved by the state … that’s going to be well-spent money in our district that we’re thankful to have.”

Most items in LSSD’s budget are expected to maintain status quo, but there are also additions planned to hire more custodial staff and increase sanitation with students heading back to school.

Depending on COVID-19’s spread in the coming months, the district also has plans in place to blend on-campus learning with remote instruction or move fully online. Officials also have flowchart based plans to respond to any positive cases, which could see individual classrooms, buildings or even the district closed down.

“We didn’t provide an education to end the school year,” Benson said. “Aug. 3, we’re responsible for providing an education regardless of what our community looks like, regardless of what scenario we’re in. So that’s why we’re going to lay the foundation, and overnight be able to change from scenario one to scenario two.”

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