Sunday, September 24, 2023

Pender to spend $850k, mostly CARES funds, on online learning for fall semester

The Pender County School System has placed several schools on a code-red lockdown (Port City Daily photo/File)
The Pender County School system voted to spend $687,500 of coronavirus relief funds on the high school high school Pender Virtual Academy program. (Port City Daily photo/File)

PENDER COUNTY — During a Board of Education meeting last week, the Pender County School district voted to spend at least $853,496 — mostly from federal coronavirus relief funds — on its online learning platforms during the fall semester.

A majority of the funding, $687,500, was approved to come from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) for the high school Pender Virtual Academy program.

The votes came days before a group of PCS teachers sent a letter to the Board stating they would not report for classroom instruction on Monday out of fears that doing so would further spread the virus — and as online enrollment numbers continue to increase.

RELATED: After reports of Trask quarantine, 60 Pender teachers refuse in-class instruction

During the Tuesday meeting, Chief Academic Officer Dr. Charles Aiken presented a breakdown of the 2,249 students enrolled for 100% online learning: 1,011 elementary students, 531 middle school students, and 707 high school students.

At an emergency meeting on Friday evening — hours after the teachers sent the letter — Superintendent Steven Hill said there had been 241 additional “requests to go online” in the past 48 hours. During the meeting it was decided to delay in-classroom instruction at Heide Trask High School for two weeks due to a number of the school’s employees being under quarantine. They also voted to delay classroom instruction one day, this Monday, for schools across the district.

Pender Board of Education Chairman Don Hall, center, listens to a protestor Tuesday evening while PCS Superintendent Steven Hill, pictured in the foreground, looks on. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Pender Board of Education Chairman Don Hall, center, during a meeting earlier this summer while PCS Superintendent Steven Hill, pictured in the foreground, looks on. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Hill said the reason for the short delay was due to “staff still working through changes to students’ schedules as they have to adjust to students requesting online courses.” But he nor any member of the Board mentioned the letter during the meeting.

On Tuesday, members of the board first approved $136,544 for the iReady online learning platform for elementary students, about 30% of which will come from the district’s own Textbook Fund while the rest will come from the state.

“This is a big step towards putting in place the various efforts of making Plan B and the online student process come to life,” Aiken told the Board.

The county had previously chosen the governor’s Plan B option to roll out the fall semester, staggering classroom and virtual instruction for the district’s students.

The Board then voted in approval of $29,452 to be used for the middle school online platform from Edmentum Inc, although it did not identify these funds as the district’s or as coronavirus relief funds.

Aiken acknowledged confusion among teachers who thought they’d be teaching both in-classroom students and also those online.

“We are working very hard not to have to do that,” he said. “We want to try to utilize the staff that are either approved for teleworking or utilize other district staff … We can certainly reach out to anyone concerned about their load. We have never had to do this before. We’re figuring some of this stuff out as we go through it.”

He said the proposed middle school option would allow district employees to be points of contact for the students as opposed to entirely turning it over to Edmentum instructors. In response to some parents’ concerns after they had been contacted by Edmentum personnel identifying themselves as ‘facilitators’ and not not as teachers, Aiken said they were all certified North Carolina teachers.

“These are not people we are picking off the street,” he told the Board.

The largest amount of funds was set for the high school Pender Virtual Academy program, one the district had been using in the spring as the Covid-19 pandemic began shutting down the state’s economy and educational system.

According to Aiken, he had been in contact with an Edmentum employee who told him the company was “now in the process of hiring more North Carolina-certified teachers to help address us and other districts.”

“This program will allow our high schools to focus on teachers that are remaining — whether teleworking or in person — to concentrate on those very select high school courses we still need to deliver,” he said.

Because the $687,500 Pender Virtual Academy contract with the company had been provided in the previous 24 hours before Tuesday’s meeting, Aiken said it still required legal review.

A fourth purchase for Edmentum’s Study Island program was also approved on Tuesday, but Aiken and the Board did not identify the funding amount.

Send tips and comments to the reporter at or (970) 413-3815

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