desk stock file photo school (copy)

The lone virtual option offered this year by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system has seen dramatically higher enrollment in the past month as COVID cases surged anew.

But along the way, the school has fallen behind in staffing and ensuring that students are getting quality instruction.

School leaders said they hope to fill teaching vacancies at the EBR Virtual Academy as early as Tuesday and by the end of next week to provide all students with full instructional schedules.

"Many (students) have had substitutes or have not had access to live instruction as we would like,” acknowledged Chief of Schools Sharon Williams during a presentation Thursday to the School Board.

Superintendent Sito Narcisse had similar things to say.

“I can admit it has been a learning curve in this process, and it has been an adjustment,” he said.

The EBR Virtual Academy, which had only about 30 students last year, all in high school, was expanded in May all the way to Pre-K.

That was part of a larger effort by Narcisse to discontinue the school-level virtual instruction common last year in favor of having just one districtwide virtual school. More than 12,000 children — about a third of the district — were learning virtually in May when the 2020-21 school year ended.

The shift was meant to lessen the burden on teachers, who were tired of simultaneously teaching students in person and virtually. And Narcisse wanted to push families to bring their children back to in-person instruction amid worries of rampant learning loss among those who’ve been learning virtually.

The expanded EBR Virtual Academy did not expand much at first. A week before the start of the school year, the virtual school had grown to only about 250 students.

On Aug. 5, however, Narcisse reversed himself on a key issue. He agreed belatedly to hold seats for children in selective magnet schools so they can later return to those schools if they temporarily enrolled in the EBR Virtual Academy because of COVID concerns.

Enrollment immediately leaped. Barely a week later, the virtual school had 1,000 students. As of Thursday, the virtual school had nearly 1,300 students.

The EBR Virtual Academy is really two schools in one.

In grades Pre-K to five, the school is led by district-employed classroom teachers. In grades six to 12, it’s a private company that’s providing instruction and that’s where the bulk of the concerns have emerged.

In late July, the district hired Austin, Texas-based Proximity Learning at a cost of $4,000 per student a year. On Thursday, the virtual school had 719 students in grades six to 12.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

Jason Roppollo, an executive with Proximity, told the board that the company is currently “vetting” more than 400 job candidates to fill its remaining vacancies, but it does not want to rush and sacrifice quality.

Board President David Tatman pressed Roppollo about complaints from students and parents about getting web links so that students can successfully log into their system and take their classes. Roppollo said there’s been some poor communication about how this is supposed to work, but that if done right doesn’t take long.

"They should be able to log in within a day or two (of enrolling)," Roppollo said, noting there's been communication problems so far.

Paige Colwell, a middle school teacher, questioned the outsourcing.

“I don’t know why we’re hiring Proximity,” Colwell said. “We have so many teachers who need jobs who can’t teach in person.”

Jennifer Harding, a parent with a child in middle school at the virtual school, said her child has received little to no instruction so far.

“We are violating all kinds of laws,” Harding said.

Harding suggested switching back to school-level virtual instruction for students who want to learn virtually or for students in quarantines.

“I hope you really think this through,” she said. “Get this right.”

Teacher vacancies are not just a problem at the virtual school.

Daphne Donaldson, chief of human resources, said there were 91 teaching vacancies across the district Thursday. A week ago, her office reported to board members that there are about 150 vacancies.

The school system is not just hiring new full-time teachers. On Thursday, the board voted 6-1 to approve a new $1,000 stipend per semester for teachers willing to offer additional virtual instruction to be used by virtual students as well as those who currently lack a classroom teacher. The vote sets aside $100,000 from the district’s general operating budget for these stipends.

Tatman was the only board member to vote no.

The teachers need to apply for the stipend and have the recommendation of their principal. Their virtual courses would be in the areas in which they already teach. The $100,000 would be enough to offer stipends to about 50 teachers over the course of a school year.

Donaldson said there are many teachers who got a lot of experience in virtual instruction last year that the district is hoping to tap into. She said it doesn’t make sense in all cases to hire a full-time teacher for some of the vacancies.

“Some of the shortages aren’t a full day shortage,” Donaldson said. “So it may just be a course that is offered at a high school that may just have five students taking that course.”


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.