Sumter County Schools goes virtual for the start of the 2020-2021 school year
By Tracy K. Hall
AMERICUS – Success often comes down to the dedication of a team. Very rarely can success stand alone on one personʼs shoulders. Dr. Torrance Choates is very aware of this. As Superintendent of Sumter County Schools (SCS) he has been teaming with many folks to ensure our students are receiving an excellent education and with each day they are becoming more and more ready to pursue their personal goals. With input from both parents and teachers, SCS chose to go to a virtual learning format for the first 9 weeks of the 2020-21 school year. Dr. Choates is extending a heartfelt invitation for our community to join forces with the schools to help make this year a rich one. Dr. Choates is especially passionate about teaming with the parents and guardians of our students. Their commitment is vital to the success of our students, and the studentsʼ success is vital to our community.
A new school year always comes with a sense of hope and anticipation. This August is no different as it brings another opportunity to grow in knowledge. On August 5th, the teachers will report for duty to prepare for the 2020-21 school year. On August 17th, students will join them in their journey to complete another goal. Virtual learning is a new concept for many of us. The Americus Times Recorder sat down with Dr. Choates to hear him paint a picture of what to expect. Dr. Choates is clearly excited about the upcoming year. He is up for a challenge and he has put much thought into bringing a good educational experience to students, teachers, staff and parents. “The community needs to know exactly what we are doing” Choates admits. “I would like parents to know we have done some remarkable things.”
And there are several remarkable challenges SCS intends to champion. With CARES funding, the plan has been set in motion. Each student will receive a new Chromebook for their studies. SCS has ordered and programmed over 4000 of them and they will be ready to be checked out by parents prior to August 17th. Secondly, with determination, SCS took on insuring students have internet access to complete their work. With over 4000 students, it could seem a rather daunting task to make internet available to all students throughout the district. However, SCS has a plan. School buses will be outfitted to serve as a “hotspot” for Wi-Fi internet service. The buses will be strategically parked throughout the district to serve students. Some buses will be parked in locations where students can gather in a socially distanced manner if the signal does not reach their home. SCS is aware of students who do and do not have access to internet, so they are able to strategically place the buses where the need is most abundant.
Thirdly, SCS will be preparing the parents on how virtual learning can be successful. Townhall type meetings and tutorials will serve to prepare parents to be an important part of the educational experience. Next, the school nutrition program will be setting up distribution spots for meals. Rather than students having to report to the school to retrieve a meal, the school will be bringing meals to the studentsʼ neighborhoods. Lastly, with an eye to returning to traditional learning, SCS has purchased specialized cameras to be at the point of entry to every school. In quick speed, the camera uses face recognition technology to insure each person who enters campus is supposed to be there. It also checks temperatures of all who enter the building. If a face is not recognized, or a temperature reading is high, the person will be asked to make a stop at the office so the next appropriate steps can be taken. In addition to this technology, the cameras also can check for weaponry at several points on the body.
But what does a day in virtual school look like? What is it like to be a student, a teacher, a parent who is participating in this method of learning? Virtual classrooms, with live teachers as well as live classmates will be meeting during the day. The student will receive his/her instruction from a familiar teacher. Private teacher conferences will be available for both students and parents. Teachers can individualize their instruction and assignments to each student as needed should a strength or weakness become apparent. When live instruction isnʼt taking place, the students have teacher assigned tasks to complete. Just as in traditional face to face curriculums, attendance and performance will be tracked. While school hours differ from school to school, the instruction will generally last from 8am to 4pm. According to Choates, “The goal is a first-class virtual educational plan.” While Choates recognizes the benefit of face to face instruction, he believes their virtual approach will be well-rounded and serve the educational needs of the students. He has seen proof of this from the experience last school year. He reports SCS was even able to retain students who were chronically failing. There were plenty of successes along the way, despite the pandemic. “We are going to do the same thing for these kids. This plan is first rate.”
SCS has put together an excellent plan. The system put out a survey with every intention of implementing what families and staff needed to have a great school year. Dr. Choates and the Sumter County Board of Education took those opinions and ideas to heart and have created a design to best suit the desires presented. Obstacles were assessed and overcome in the best way possible. But there is still an urgency. Dr.
Choates knows virtual learning is not only new for students and teachers, it is also new for parents. Parents are an integral part to making the school year successful. “The parents and students have to be more motivated than ever. Stand with your child, check work, be proactive to make sure they do what they are supposed to do. Itʼs going to take motivation to complete these lessons.” SCS stands at the ready to take care of the parents who are taking care of the students. When asked what he would like the parents to know, Dr. Choates states, “All in all I want them to keep it positive. Letʼs hear some good things. Letʼs hear some positive comments coming out of Sumter County– anybody can be negative. Deep down in my heart, more so than ever, I want to work with them. I want them to help me make this school system one of the best in the state
of Georgia. We have enough great things going on to make this happen. We have enough good people in the community to make this a reality and I want their help.”
Dr. Choates imagines with the opportunities presented to our students, they could be nuclear scientists. Dr. Choatesʼ enthusiasm for our schools is contagious. He invites not only parents but the entire community to join in unity behind our school system. He knows the better SCS becomes, the more Sumter County will reap the rewards. So, what can we as a community do for our schools? Dr. Choates seems to be guided by 2 very strong principles: staying positive, and unifying for the greater good. “Itʼs just good to hear positive. One of my goals is for this community to support us, get behind us— letʼs work together. Join me, join the board of education, join our faculty and staff.” As with any good leader, Dr. Choates can identify a complaint. He can see what is constructive in them, however, he is aware complaining can only get us so far and at some point complaints will destroy something good. His advice: “Letʼs work together, letʼs make this place what it can really be. We need your support. You can clearly see everything we are doing in terms of putting out a first-class education. I need you to reciprocate. Letʼs become one, working for the best of every student.”
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