Virtual instruction here to stay in Dougherty County School System

·5 min read

May 11—EDITOR'S NOTE — Part of an ongoing series about the future of education in southwest Georgia.

ALBANY — While there has been a lot of discussion about a shortage in the nursing field, the medical profession is not the only one that is suffering from a lack of qualified employees as the Baby Boom generation retires.

Schools also are feeling the pinch as they scramble to meet the needs of students, particularly in certain subject areas.

While the COVID-19 pandemic did not cause the current crunch, the events that unfolded in education during that time will reverberate in the future, Dougherty County Schools Superintendent Ken Dyer said. Looming retirements also will have an impact moving forward.

The shortage became apparent years before the pandemic hit, with more than 100,000 teaching positions either vacant or staffed by unqualified personnel in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Learning Policy Institute. Nearly every state reported a shortage of instructors in math, science and special education, with teacher turnover and a decline in individuals pursuing education as a career was noted.

Between 2009 and 2017, 340,000 fewer students enrolled in educator preparation programs, largely driven by financial concerns, the organization said. The cost of comprehensive preparation, burden of student loan debt and lack of competitive compensation played a role in individuals making the decision to pursue other careers.

The Learning Policy Institute noted that COVID-19 worsened the situation, with some teachers choosing to seek early retirement out of safety concerns and 43% of states during the 2020-2021 school year reporting shortages in math, 42 percent in science and 44 percent in special education.

The Dougherty County School System did not experience the trend of teachers retiring due to concerns about returning to campus, Dyer said.

The school system initiated virtual learning for an extended period of time and, when schools re-opened, initiated a hybrid system with some students staying at home while others returned to their campus.

Facing those trends, virtual instruction by teachers who may live on the other side of the country is the present, as well as likely the future.

For several years Dougherty County has turned to virtual teaching through the Elevate K-12 program, a program that staffs classrooms with teachers in other locations.

For the current school year, students here have been instructed in math by Candace Bui-Watson in Illinois and Patti Delmonte, who lives in Florida.

While Bui-Watson has taught through Elevate K-12 for a number of years and is in her second year teaching sixth-graders in Dougherty County at Merry Acres Elementary School, instruction in the age of COVID has brought unique challenges.

Previously, students were all in a classroom and could participate more easily, she said. She could see the entire classroom and all students saw her via the internet. But with students at other locations, that is not always the case.

Some remote students learning at home also have other issues, such as being alone with younger siblings during the daytime.

"It is difficult because you can't see if they're sleeping or not," Bui-Watson said. "I have students who say, 'I have to do laundry.' I will contact the parent and say, 'Ma'am, your child is in school, he can't do laundry now.' We do have that."

She also can't observe students to see when they have an "ah-ha" moment when they master a concept or are scratching their heads in confusion.

One advantage through Elevate K-12 is that a classroom has the same instructor for an entire school year instead of a series of substitute teachers, she said.

The teachers get a sense of students' learning styles and personalities, knowing which ones are just naturally quiet but on task and which need additional help.

Bui-Watson also keeps track of which students are paying attention by posting a math problem for students to solve on an "online blackboard." In other instances, she helps struggling students solve a problem.

"There are different things we can do to keep them engaged," she said.

One way Bui-Watson and Delmonte have bonded with students is by turning her camera outside to display the heavy snow in Illinois. She also asks students about their lives and culture in southwest Georgia.

One subject that Delmonte, who is teaching high school math this year at Dougherty High School, has found students always mention is a favorite restaurant. Another is their shoes.

"We have to remember as teachers that we are all humans first," Bui-Watson said. "We have to remember (that) comes first, especially during a pandemic."

The delivery of instruction also has improved in the second year of the pandemic, the teachers said.

"The technology is much better now," Bui-Watson said.

"They have microphones, so we can hear them," Delmonte said. "I think the key is to use all the tools we have to keep the students engaged. I definitely think there's going to be more (online teaching) going forward. I definitely think we're heading in that direction."

Bui-Watson, who has taught virtually since 2014, said that not having to deal with the distractions of a classroom helps her to be a better teacher.

"I found with Elevate I'm able to concentrate on teaching rather than anything else," she said. "When I teach, I'm able to put 100 percent into teaching."