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School officials in Aiken County promise that online learning options will be better in the fall than they were this past spring, when teachers had to adapt to remote learning overnight.

All public school students in Aiken County will participate in some form of distance learning when classes resume this fall.

The way in which such instruction will be completed will depend significantly on whether students have access to internet and devices in their homes.

The Aiken County Public School District received state approval Thursday for its return-to-school plan with two options of either an online-only or hybrid model of learning to begin once students return to school Aug. 31.

The Aiken County Board of Education voted to postpone the start of school by two weeks to allow the district more time to better prepare for virtual learning. 

In the online-only model, called Aiken Innovate, students will receive 100% of instruction and complete assignments virtually.

In the hybrid model, 50% of students will attend school Mondays and Tuesdays, and the remaining 50% will attend Wednesdays and Thursdays. Fridays will be used for teacher planning and facility cleaning.

Aiken County schools Superintendent King Laurence said the district is in the process of determining how students in schools are going to be split up into the two groups, though students who are in the same family or the same household will be grouped together to make transportation easier on parents. 

Access to internet, devices

While the district is securing laptops and hotspot WiFi for virtual learning, Laurence said these resources are being prioritized for students in Aiken Innovate, the district's all-virtual school.

Laurence said this is because internet access and devices are required for Aiken Innovate's totally online structure. 

A little over 24,000 students are expected to enroll in the 2020-2021 school year, and around 7,000 students have enrolled in Aiken Innovate.

Of those students in the virtual-only model, over 2,000 have applied for device assistance by filling out forms on the district's website, Laurence said.

A $6,671,792 grant from the district's pot of CARES Act funding was used to secure 7,000 laptop devices for students. 

That shipment – which was expected mid-August – has been delayed due to a high demand for remote learning devices.

"Those devices are somewhere in the supply chain," Laurence said during an Aiken County school board meeting July 28. "We've ordered several thousand new devices, which we expect to start arriving in mid-September."

In the meantime, devices that already exist in schools – such as repurposed iPads and laptops from mobile labs – will be used to offset technology demand in Aiken Innovate until the devices arrive, Laurence said.  

Laurence said more shipments totaling in about 2,000 devices, including for teachers, are expected later in the fall. 

Aside from lacking devices, internet access is also an issue in some households in Aiken County.

Laurence said the district is seeking 1,800 WiFi hotspots based on technology need request forms completed by parents in an effort to increase broadband internet across the district.

Distance learning in the hybrid model

Distance learning once school begins will contain new instruction, Laurence said, unlike the review material in distance learning packets students completed when schools shut down in March.

The way instruction is completed will depend significantly on students' access to internet and devices in their homes during the first few weeks of school.

"At the recommendation of the Back to School Task Force, summer curriculum teams focused their work on developing a bank of resources that could be used to support direct instruction of targeted standards in a remote learning environment," said Micki Dove, director of curriculum support with the Aiken County school district.

This resource bank will allow teachers to create their own virtual learning media to enhance distance learning in the hybrid model, said Dove, a member of Aiken County's Back to School Task Force.

Teachers will also be able to use media created by other teachers, staff and content specialists for the appropriate subject matter for their classes. 

The resource bank will contain videos, PowerPoints and interactive online resources, but this will only be available to students who can access them.

"That would be dependent on students having computer and internet access in their homes," Laurence said.

While the district has committed to providing one device for each student in elementary school through 12th grade, the delay in the district's first shipment of laptops will force some in the hybrid learning model to rely on hardcopy packets to complete their studies and finish assignments on virtual learning days until the devices arrive, Laurence said.

Assignments for all students will be deadline driven, Dove said.  

"Attendance, in the traditional sense, will not be taken on remote learning days for the hybrid model," Dove said. "The students' completed assignments that demonstrate effort toward mastery of the learning will serve as evidence for time on task and attendance."

The two days students are required to be in classrooms are days when teachers will prioritize the bulk of their new instruction, Dove told the Aiken County school board previously in July.

Fridays will be reserved for lesson planning for teachers and virtual office hours between teachers and students. Having lesson planning time reserved on Fridays is meant to give teachers more time to plan such instruction. 

Kristina Rackley is the health, education, and general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard. To support local journalism and access more articles, subscribe by clicking here