Chelsea Bowlin, a first grade teacher at Lake Forest Elementary School in Gainesville, opens Zoom on her desktop computer every morning and projects the screen onto a whiteboard. She also places a laptop on a desk at the front of the classroom – so she can see as well as be seen.
Using a headset, a stylus and the videoconference platform’s annotate setting, Bowlin can project in-person instruction to 14 students, but also to another nine watching online from their homes. The best way to keep them all engaged via the relatively new HyFlex system is through song.
“We do a lot of songs,” Bowlin said. “They’re up, they’re singing, they’re dancing.”
The teacher was among those seen in a video portraying how in-person instruction is happening amid the pandemic in Alachua County public schools, during a presentation by Jennifer Wise, the district’s K-12 curriculum executive director, at the county school board meeting Tuesday.
Families were given three choices for instruction this school year: in-person, the Alachua Digital Academy and Alachua’s eSchool, officials said.
Forty percent chose the digital academy, which uses the HyFlex model in which some students attend class in person and the rest do so from home. The main difference between the academy and eSchool is that the former allows for online learning simultaneously with in-class peers.
“I don’t think it’s perfect, but while we’re doing this, the only thing we can do is endeavor to make it better,” Wise said, “and that’s what we’re working on right now.”
She added, “The prevalence of HyFlex became much greater than we anticipated.”
Board member Gunnar Paulson agreed.
“We have three elementary schools … that are over 60% on HyFlex, and two of them were here tonight: Rawlings and Lake Forest,” Paulson said. “We have nine out of our 12 secondary schools over 80%.”
Headsets, styluses and a Ladibug have been crucial tools in the classrooms, according to teachers presented in the HyFlex demonstration video, officials said. Ladibug – actually a portable, red projector – enables teachers to present printed materials and annotate them instantly.
The district is considering other tools, such as electronic whiteboards and new touch screens and microphones, to help HyFlex teachers to better teach in-person and online students, Paulson said.
However, the digital academy hasn’t risen to the standards of all teachers, families and students.
The Alachua County PTA’s back-to-school survey found that social interaction and class involvement is a key concern. Teachers, families and students agree that the HyFlex model isn’t as successful, because teachers must split their attention between in-person and online.
While the board looks to advance distance learning technology, basic tools are still in demand as high-need schools are without resources needed to provide proper instruction to every student.
“The question is … are we going to have enough devices?” Lake Forest third-grade teacher Kelly Cacciabeve asked the board during the public comment portion of the meeting.
The district serves over 26,000 students enrolled in the district, and over 6,000 computers have been provided for students to aid in their distance learning, officials said. Internet hotspots have been created and other technology tools have been distributed, they said.
Cacciabeve still called, however, for creating a task force to determine a path forward.
“We all know this is a pandemic. We all know this is something none of us have experienced. So why aren’t we all getting together?” she asked.
The technology, resources and training the teachers and students need are expensive.
Alachua County received $46.9 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act via the state. The county commission then granted about $6.8 million to the school district. The district has used a significant amount of that funding to provide resources for distance learning students and training for online instructors.
According to Paulson, $3 million alone has been spent on computers for students.
Even so, Board Chair Eileen Roy said, families with multiple children are struggling to share their allocated computers at home. In those households, students are trying to connect on their parents’ phones while a sibling works on the computer, Roy said.
The exact number of online students is constantly changing, so the needs of HyFlex and online learning are still being assessed. In non-emergency cases, students enrolled in in-person classes are permitted to switch to the digital academy, and vice versa, after the first nine weeks of school. Students enrolled in the eSchool must stay in their online courses for the entire semester.
As in-person students test positive for COVID-19 and or are sent home to quarantine, they are encouraged to continue their classes online, if possible, officials said.
It remains unclear whether standardized testing will take place during the anticipated timeframe, or whether the digital academy will still be available after this semester.
“It’s kind of a fluid situation,” Roy said.