Zachary High School teacher Alyssa Fontenot, left, takes a selfie with graduating seniors, from left, Wesley Babin, Graceyn Babin and Avery Babin on May 20, 2020.

A week and a half after approving a hybrid return-to-school plan, the Zachary Community School Board was told Tuesday that nearly half of the district’s 5,600 students are instead interested in pursuing a virtual-only option when classes begin Aug. 10.

While the district is preparing to bring students back to campuses on alternating days, it also will offer a 100% online curriculum for those unable and unwilling to physically attend classes under direction from the state Department of Education.

When the hybrid plan was OK'd July 9, 300 to 400 students had expressed interest in the virtual-only option. By Tuesday’s meeting — which came amid a continuing rise in coronavirus cases statewide — about 2,400 had signed up, according to district human resources director Yolanda Williams.

Registration for the program was cut off earlier this week, but will be reopened soon. Superintendent Scott Devillier said parents are still calling asking how they can sign up.

“We’re not telling anyone that they can’t go” virtual, Devillier said. “We can open that up. We just had a date because we needed to start planning.”

Asked which grade levels had the most signups, Williams said “it’s literally a bell curve,” with fewer of the district’s youngest and oldest students opting for the online-only program.

The growing interest in distance learning has changed the planning process for the new school year. Putting together a complete online curriculum for a few hundred children is much different than creating one that will involve about 43% of Zachary’s student population, Williams said.

Teachers, however, are working diligently to get ready for both online and in-person instruction under the new, challenging circumstances, she added.

Rumors are circulating that kids won’t have recess or electives.

“That’s not true,” Williams said. “We’re just going to have to make adjustments as the guidelines require.”

Teachers are learning to use a variety of technologies to continue to provide arts programs, for example, to virtual students, she said.

Teachers will be on campus whether they’re teaching virtually or face-to-face “unless we have extenuating circumstances,” Devillier said.

Even as other Louisiana school systems are considering sticking with 100% virtual education at the beginning of the year, Devillier defended Zachary’s hybrid plan, which will be in place at least until Labor Day.

He said going to school will help kids learn the safety procedures they should follow in the "new normal" of the coronavirus era. And on their at-home days, they'll get to become more familiar with online learning and communication platforms, which he said will be valuable in the event that school buildings must shut down again.

Devillier said he’s received lots of complaints that the virtual programming offered this past spring was not good enough. He assured parents attending Tuesday’s meeting that the fall curriculum will be better; the initial online classes, he noted, were put together on the fly after schools were ordered to close.

Devillier added that the district has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on items including cleaning supplies, reusable masks and water bottles that will be handed out to every child, and laptops for those who need them.

The hybrid plan isn’t perfect, Williams said, but neither are the options.

“Teachers like to teach in front of kids five days a week,” she said. “The problem is right now, they’re concerned about what’s going on.”

She has spoken with several teachers who are worried about returning and are considering resigning or retiring. While their concerns are understandable, she said, the district is doing all it can to support and keep its employees because it’s difficult to hire teachers and qualified substitutes right now.