| The Daytona Beach News-Journal
By the third day of school, Chenoa Yancey knew something had to change. Her children, eighth and ninth graders enrolled in the district’s virtual school, were struggling.
Delays in starting classes through Volusia Online Learning meant her kids watched their friends go back to brick and mortar schools while they sat home and did nothing. Virtual school seemed like the wisest choice over the summer, when so much was unknown about the schools’ reopening plans. But that changed for the family.
“We were really, really willing to take the risk of sending them back because we knew for their own mental health and their own social aspect they really needed to go,” Yancey said. “They were struggling at home.”
Families across the district have reached that same conclusion and changed their minds about which learning option they want for their kids. Some went the opposite way, and found that in-person learning wasn’t for them. That means teachers have seen fluctuations in their rosters and school and district officials must change and re-change student schedules weeks into the year.
More: Here’s why thousands of Volusia’s students couldn’t start virtual school in 1st week
It’s a logistical and instructional challenge so daunting that the district set a deadline for families, who were notified last week: no more schedule changes after today.
“Of course everything is exponentially more difficult this year,” said teachers union president Elizabeth Albert. “Every year we do have some fluctuations and we have some movement every year. We see kids enroll after Labor Day. But not like this.”
In a normal school year, changes to schedules come when new students enroll in the district. But this year, with an unprecedented interest in virtual school and the option for remote learning, most of the changes are happening with students the district already counted on, explained the district’s Assistant Director in Information Technology Services Tina Skipper.
But all those changes make it hard for teachers to get the year started with their students. It makes it difficult for the district to get an accurate student count, which is important for determining how much funding it gets. And it makes instruction more challenging.
“It’s an unstable situation,” Albert said. “It’s taking away from the overall ability to provide what we need to provide for kids.”
That’s why the district set a deadline for families, although students who chose the traditional schooling option who need to be out for illness or quarantine can switch to the remote option until they are well.
Perspective: Volusia County teachers can’t teach with divided classrooms, inadequate training
At the elementary level, there are dedicated classes for Volusia Live, the remote learning option, and in-person learning. But varying enrollment in Volusia Live across grade levels and across schools have presented another challenge for schools. Some schools have started sharing students to create regional classes, in order to create full-class sizes. So some students may not be in a class led by a teacher at their zoned school, but rather one nearby.
One elementary teacher who spoke to The News-Journal on the condition of anonymity, for fear that they would face repercussions for speaking to the media, said they’re teaching two grade levels at once. They said their class size has almost doubled since the first day.
“These kids are not getting the instruction that they should,” said the teacher who’s working with students in two grade levels. “And it’s not from lack of trying on teachers’ part. We have been given a very difficult task and have been given very little resources to do it.”
At the secondary level, it gets trickier. The original plan was to have a mix of Volusia Live and in-person students in each class. Teachers quickly began pushing back, asking for dedicated remote or in-person teachers. Then, the union asked for dedicated remote or in-person class periods, which the district denied.
More: Volusia School Board again pulls from savings, slight tax hike to balance budget
But now, a high school teacher who asked to remain anonymous said, at least one school may be considering changing schedules to have all remote or all in-person students in each class period. Teaching mixed classes is “pretty difficult,” they said, but at this point another big shift in schedules could be even more so.
And for virtual school, the district gets less state funding for students who enroll full-time in Volusia Online Learning compared to those learning in-person or remotely this year. The district stands to lose millions from those students — so continued changes makes it hard to get an accurate count so the district can plan its finances.
As students like the Yancey’s children go to school in-person after the year has already started, there’s a disruption to the learning process as teachers get those students settled while trying to teach distinct groups of students.
More: Volusia school district backpedals on media restrictions, but information is still scarce
The hope is that the moratorium on switching between options will bring stability to the district where it’s been lacking — while balancing the needs of families who want to do what’s best for their children in a complicated and, of course, unprecedented situation.
“We’re experiencing it in real time with them and we are trying to be as nimble (as possible),” Skipper said. “The decisions the district is making as a whole, we are making in the interest of what we think is the majority.”