Virtual learning coming to FCSD

Winnsboro – They won’t be replacing live teachers.

But when the Fairfield County School District finds itself in a pinch due to a long-term absence, virtual teachers could help fill the void.

At the August board meeting, district leaders briefed the school board about a new partnership with Proximity Learning, which would provide virtual instruction to elementary students.

Implementation could begin as early as Sept. 17, but would be confined to Spanish instruction one day a week in child development through sixth grade, said Dr. Claudia Avery, the district’s deputy superintendent of academics.

“We are hoping with this opportunity that we will be able to fill short-term and long-term vacancies for certified teachers,” Avery said.

Virtual teachers would provide customized learning to students’ needs and also provide remediation options if needed. Teachers are certified to teach in South Carolina.

McCrorey-Liston School for Technology and Geiger Elementary School students are participating in the program, according to district documents.

“Proximity Learning courses are built around live class sessions delivered via web-conferencing,” district documents state. “The live instruction model mirrors the experience of a traditional brick and mortar classroom setting, but is conducted entirely online.”

Founded in 2008, Proximity Learning is an Austin, Texas firm that provides online instruction and tutoring services to school districts, particularly in districts facing teaching shortages.

Evan Erdberg, the company’s founder, started Proximity Learning after observing high numbers of long-term substitutes and teachers with emergency certifications covering classrooms.

“Evan noted disturbing trends: schools in the most impoverished communities had the highest number of teacher vacancies which quite often exceeded more than half of teacher population in a school,” the district’s website states.

“Principals in these schools would hasten to explain that their hands were tied, no teachers applied for these positions, and/or, refused to work in their school when placed by the district,” the website continues. “This led to students who suffered inequity two-fold, the students were deprived of highly qualified teachers which in turn reflected an average student pass rate of only 20%.”

Avery said the Greenville County school district is working with Proximity Learning. Districts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Richmond, Virginia; and New York City work with the firm too, she said.

Virtual learning wouldn’t supplant existing teachers.

As Dr. Green noted later in the meeting during his superintendent’s report, the district’s staffing status is robust.

“We are in very good shape in relation to staffing,” Green said. “There are lots of districts that are having tremendous struggles filling positions, but we are in an excellent position and looking forward to an outstanding school year.”

Avery said existing substitute funds and grants would cover the total cost, which wasn’t specifically stated at the August meeting.

“We have received preliminary approval that this has been approved through the Title V funds we receive from the federal government,” Avery said. “Those funds will cover the entire cost of our virtual learning program.”

Board member Paul Hartman asked how virtual teachers would know where students were in the curriculum. Avery said principals already have an idea of a particular class’ progress when there’s advance notice that a teacher will be out long-term.

“Of course with maternity leaves and long term substitutes, we typically know when that’s going to happen. If we know now a teacher is going to leave in December, we can go ahead and plan now.”

Live persons would still provide classroom management. It’s just the instructional component that virtual teachers would handle.

“A teacher assistant or another person within the building will serve as the facilitator,” Avery said. “This person basically is inside the classroom with the students to make sure they are on staying track and following along with the virtual teacher.”

A media specialist would also provide some support with the technology component, Avery added.

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