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Johnson County Schools to start with full virtual classes

Unlike years past, Director of Schools Mischelle Simcox gathered parent feedback related to opening schools. Simcox presented four separate plans to the Johnson County School Board. The current plan is to go virtual for now and re-evaluate after a pre-set time limit. File photos

By Jill Penley
Freelance Writer

It seems the only constant in this time of upheaval is; change. The Johnson County Board of Education has had to tackle their share of it as of late. Local students were originally scheduled to return to class last week, on Tuesday, August 4, after being out of school since March, when state health officials were first faced with the conundrum of how to deal with COVID-19. 

Although the county’s daily positive cases remained minimal for several months to follow, local numbers began to surge as the date to open schools approached, causing administrators and the board to question the safety of returning at the scheduled time. The decision then was made to delay the start of the school year until Monday, August 17.

With local cases continuing to rise, a special called meeting of the board of education was announced for August 5 to discuss and approve a plan for returning to school for the 2020-21 school year. At the onset of the meeting, Dr. Mischelle Simcox released four potential reopening options previously distributed in survey form to all Johnson County Schools employees.

“We wish it were normal, and our students were in school right now,” said Simcox. “We wish we didn’t have to deal with this, but sadly, we are.”

Option one, which was chosen by 42.2 percent of those surveyed, includes going entirely virtual, which would begin August 17 and continue through Aug. 28, at which time the situation would be reassessed.The second and third option included “staggered” schedules in which only a percentage of students in school buildings each day, which option two suggesting 25 percent and option three upping the percentage to 50 percent of students in classrooms, but only two days per week. Both of these proposals would be implemented from August 17 through August 28 and reassessed in response to active virus cases.The final option suggested postponing opening day to September 8, with schools being either in-person or virtual depending on active COVID-19 cases.

The sticking point to virtual learning is the availability of computers and technology. The coronavirus has further highlighted the vast digital divide in Johnson County as some homes do not have to a computer while others are unable to access the internet, both of which are crucial for virtual learning.

Dr. Simcox announced 1,100 Chromebooks were ordered with federal CARES Act funding; however, due to increased demand, they are not expected to be delivered until the end of September or later. “We have about 800 devices to hand out,” explained Simcox, “but, of course, that is not enough when you’re looking at approximately 2,100 students.” Since the schools only have a limited number of mobile devices, they should be utilized by families who have no device in the home.

“We have extended our wireless access to school and central office parking lots for students who cannot receive internet access at their home,” said Simcox, who added, “additional measures will be considered on a case by case basis for students unable to access adequate internet for virtual learning.” Student email addresses have been issued for all students in PreK-12 and will be the primary means of communication. Administrators say the child’s teacher will reach out to them concerning their login information.

Simcox also advises that the schools’ computer labs can be accessible as another option for students to utilize equipment and internet services. Those times can be scheduled at each school. For more information, visit the school department’s website at https://www.jocoed.net/.