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Virtual Georgetown students, teachers hindered by slow, ineffective internet

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GEORGETOWN — While COVID-19 cases have dropped significantly inside of the Georgetown County school district, the virtual option that many students are still utilizing has has been riddled with internet issues, something that virtual teachers say they have gone back and forth with the district on in an attempt to quell the issue.

GCSD IT director Mike Powell said he has seen nothing like before in his more than 20 years working in technology.

And it's an ongoing issue, as Genia Smith, the GCSD executive director for innovations and special programs, says the district wants to have a learning option for students who would feel safer learning from home for the 2021-22 school year.

Because more students and teachers are using devices in their schools, between virtual learning and overflow live stream rooms for some classes, more bandwidth is being used and overwhelming the current infrastructure in place, Powell said.

Madison McCoy, a kindergarten virtual teacher at Waccamaw Elementary School, said when she worked in the school she was kicked off her virtual classes with students because of poor internet connection multiple times per day.

When McCoy approached administration about working from home to mitigate these issues in mid-February 2021, she said she and other virtual teachers were approved to work from home starting March 8. Two weeks later, though, she was asked via emails obtained by The Post and Courier Myrtle Beach to return to again teach virtually from her classroom starting March 15 by the district's director of human resources, Doug Jenkins.

McCoy said she was given no clear word on if these internet issues would be fixed when she returned to the school, but according to McCoy, Jenkins and emails obtained by The Post and Courier Myrtle Beach, virtual teachers were then again given permission March 19 to work from home until further notice.

Powell said that the district maxed out on its bandwidth infrastructure about three years ago, and that it is currently limited to 5 gigs of bandwidth when it needs at least double that now.

Powell indicated the district has been working with bandwidth company, Segra, to get the proper bandwidth and infrastructure, but that there have been three failed attempts by the company to provide schools with proper bandwidth.

Between the failed attempts and waiting on infrastructure and bandwidth improvements, Powell said the district is at the mercy of Segra as to when these issues will be resolved.

"I have been doing this over 20 years and I've never witnessed so many failed bandwidth increases," Powell said.

The 2021-22 virtual academy, whose curriculum is identical to its in-person counterpart, will only be available via application to students whose academics and attendance records from this school year qualify. Smith said the district is looking for high levels of academic performance and attendance in approved virtual academy students to ensure that those students will be set up to succeed, not fail.

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"Our students that are in the program, if you compare them to those that are face to face, the data shows that they're struggling in regards to reading," Smith said.

In March 2020, in response to the pandemic, the district built its own virtual academy from the ground up for all students with no application process required. While Smith said it was a success, it also was clear that there was significant learning loss across grade levels.

With this loss in mind, the district is putting minimum and maximum enrollment capacities on 2021-22 virtual students to balance its families safety concerns with evidence that students succeed more when they are learning in-person.

At least 15 elementary students will need to be approved for the program, or it will not happen at all. The program will be capped at 30 elementary students.

For middle and high schoolers, the minimum enrollment must be 20, with a maximum enrollment of 35. Kindergarten through 8th graders who are approved must also commit to the program for the entirety of the school year, while high schoolers must remain in the program for a semester.

As of April 1, Smith said only a high school virtual program would be viable based on current numbers, and that the students and families she has not approved so far have been understanding.

The program now is awaiting state board approval for a waiver on seat time for students.

At a meeting on March 30, the GCSD board approved a waiver on the required amount of time virtual students are required to learn in front of a computer. This waiver, Smith said, takes the pressure off the district to keep students in front of a screen for the required 30 hours a week and allows the students to be able to do more work independently, or asynchronously.

"Because of screen time, we don't want our kids to be on 30 hours a week," Smith said. "What it does is gives us flexibility so that the kids are able to lessen the screen time and balance it with asynchronous work."

Student and families have until April 29 to apply for the virtual program, and will know if they are accepted no later than June 30. Virtual teacher applications were sent out April 1 and are due April 30.

Follow Demi Lawrence on Twitter @DemiNLawrence.

Demi Lawrence is a reporter who graduated from Ball State University. Before joining The Post and Courier, she was an intern at The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, Indiana and Indianapolis Monthly.

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