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HCS board member under fire for 'disrespectful' comments on virtual teachers

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Helen Smith is the HCS Board of Education District 6 representative. 

CONWAY — On the eve of the second Horry County Schools Board of Education meeting of 2021, a board member is facing backlash for comments she made during its last meeting on Jan. 11.

Teachers have taken exception to Helen Smith, the District 6 representative, after she seemed to minimize the challenges that have come with being an HCS Virtual teacher — a role thrust upon mainly due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While a pair of district officials presented plans for what HCS Virtual could look like for the 2021-22 school year, Smith asked about the student-teacher ratio, while also making the following statement:

“I always thought in my mind that virtual teachers would have a larger pupil-teacher ratio,” Smith said. “They don't have 25 little kindergarten kids running around.

“Teachers don't have students in the classroom; they have to work individually one on one, except on a computer. It's not like they have to get their attention all day long.”

Smith’s take was not well-received by the teaching community, including Lee Ann Khaled, a virtual teacher.

“Listening to the board meeting on Monday. It was evident that some board members are very ignorant about the virtual academy and the demands on virtual teachers,” Khaled said.

As Khaled pointed to virtual-specific obstacles, such as behavior management and scheduling, Rebecca Salley, a fellow virtual teacher, said that Smith’s words carry unnecessary weight during an already difficult semester.

“The assumption that educators are all looking for an easy way out is interpreted by many as ill-informed at best and disrespectful at worst. Whether or not she meant exactly what she said, the comment was not received well among many educators in Horry County,” Salley said.

There is a districtwide shortage of substitute teachers, confirmed by BOE Chairman Ken Richardson at the meeting. One teacher had a suggestion for all board members: roll up their sleeves and jump into both sets of classrooms.

“Helen, your comment was insulting and shows just how little you know about being an educator," said Cori Canada, a virtual teacher. "You owe your teachers an apology.”

Canada continued, “After that apology I encourage you to go substitute for a week in a kindergarten classroom in brick and mortar, and then substitute for a week for a kindergarten teacher in a virtual setting. Perhaps then that would give you some perspective.”

Defining the differences, on paper

At the Jan. 11 board meeting, Edi Cox, the HCS executive director of online learning, indicated the district had used the first semester to learn on the fly, making many adjustments based on feedback from teachers, students and parents.

The learning curve that has come with the system purchased from Florida Virtual Schools have been steep, with Salley pointing to relationship building and student interaction at the core of what varies from those in brick-and-mortar settings to those in virtual school.

“Part of being a successful teacher is working with students and helping them know you care,” Salley said. “We have to put time and effort into every relationship, whether it is on a screen or in the classroom. It definitely takes time to build those bridges.”

What many teachers pointed to is that the “bridge” itself is entirely different from HCS Virtual to brick-and-mortar instruction — as the curricula are different.

The adoption of HCS Virtual came alongside the editing and deleting of multiple assignments and units across all subjects, according to multiple teachers. This has led to a different pacing for students, which will inherently put them at different points in the curriculum at the end of the school year.

The learning management system is also entirely different for HCS Virtual students, straying from HCS’ normal system of Google Classroom and PowerSchool, and shifting to Buzz and Genius, the latter far more advanced and intricate, according to virtual teachers.

While these are nuts-and-bolts differences, virtual teachers admit to issues with students’ lack of motivation and off-task behavior as serious hurdles in keeping the flow of education on task.

The inability to tap on a shoulder or stop a student in the hallway are lost, replaced by the hopes that a student will join a virtual classroom that they are not required to attend.

Defining the differences, in reality

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In a virtual world, the clock has seemingly not stopped for teachers, with Khaled and others “on call” at all times, with Pre-K to high school teachers hosting night classes and personal tutoring sessions at all hours of the day.

Virtual teachers are required to have one evening office hour per week, but commonly take on many more, with Khaled even fielding multiple requests for aid on Thanksgiving.

For some teachers, community pressure, including statements like those from Smith, create a culture where there is no off-switch.

Virtual teachers have seen an increasing inability to have constructive communication with parents, while also experiencing high levels of plagiarism — something that has to be managed remotely. Virtual students are also finding it difficult to manage their time well, with teachers indicating that many were only one-third the way through a semester’s worth of work in early January.

Khaled believes that the lack of guarantees of virtual interaction compounds these issues.

“In a physical classroom, if we see that a student does not understand a concept, we can stop them and immediately help,” Khaled said.

Khaled said that this onus falls to parents and guardians, and participation has been uneven, causing students to be on different paths within the same virtual classroom.

In physical school, those falling behind would have access to an intervention teacher — but HCS Virtual teachers are solely responsible for these course corrections, a time-consuming task in the online world.

This can make a virtual teacher’s job all-encompassing.

“The idea that our job simply consists of sitting in front of a screen a couple hours a day and teaching students synchronously with no management or engagement issues is extremely misguided and insulting,” said Khaled, referring to Smith’s comments. “As a virtual teacher, I work longer hours than I did as a traditional teacher.”

Defining the differences, moving forward

With 3,202 students choosing to move from HCS Virtual back into brick-and-mortar education at the turn of the semester — slated for Feb. 1 — there will be a shift of resources back onto campuses throughout Horry County.

That includes some virtual teachers being told, not asked, that they will go back to a brick-and-mortar setting, a decision that brings about nerves for many — for a multitude of reasons.

That led to a nerve-wracking weekend for many due to concerns over the safety of being in the classroom because of the rise of COVID-19 within HCS and throughout the county, particularly with Richardson stating publicly that the intent of the district is to return to full-time, in-person instruction in February.

According to the HCS COVID-19 dashboard, there are 163 current cases, with 105 students and 58 staffers testing positive. There are 176 staff members currently in quarantine, while the district does not provide data on students in quarantine.

Despite the known quantity of teachers returning to the physical classroom, those who will have new teachers have yet to be notified, a sticking point with many teachers, particularly those at the elementary school level, where students have a single teacher.

It has added undue pressure to those already having to lesson plan for a new class in less than two weeks.

According to an HCS spokesperson, students will receive their class and teacher assignments this week.

Despite the switch of the semester, there remain 10,415 HCS Virtual students that will close out the academic year online in the coming months, something that teachers hope will bring about more awareness and respect for what they do.

“The gaslighting and toxic positivity for all teachers coming from the public and those in charge is maddening. Our overtime should not be a badge of honor,” Canada said. “It’s a systematic problem that leads to burnout and that is why teachers are leaving. We, virtual and brick and mortar are working harder than we ever have only to be berated by those that have no idea what we do behind the scenes and have not one idea what our job entails."

She concluded, "We are tired of feeling like our professional opinions do not matter and everyone knows how to do our jobs better than us.”

Reach Nick Masuda at 843-607-0912. Follow him on Twitter at @nickmasudaphoto. 

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