By Brandon Martin
After a hectic first day, Martinsville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Zebedee Talley told Martinsville City Council members that the schools are ready for the challenges presented in the new virtual learning environment.
Talley noted that the Martinsville division was the first one in the area to make the decision to return to school fully virtually.
“It was a tough decision,” he said. “We understand that in-person instruction is always better than virtual but then we also see that the young people are going to have to get acclimated because a lot of these universities are going virtual first and maybe in-person later. It’s not going away. It’s something we are going to have to deal with. Young people are a lot smarter than me anyway, with technology.”
Talley said the schools have established a helpline for parents to assist with any issues with the virtual learning format.
“We had a very hectic first day. We doubled the number of people on our helpline,” he said. “Our workers are so dedicated. Teachers are so excited. Most school systems are having a hard time getting teachers to work and we haven’t lost any. All of our teachers returned.”
Teachers are physically at the schools every day, according to Talley, who added that administrative staff are also conducting observations every day as well.
Talley said parents having difficulties can call the school at (276) 403-5820.
The helpline will “probably be open for the duration of the year, pretty much because with technology, you’re going to have problems. They can simply call,” Talley said.
In addition, Talley said staff members even conducted home visits to help people with technology, adding that one of the hiccups on the first day came with technology and internet connectivity issues throughout the city.
“Our staff go beyond,” Talley said. “The greatest thing about Martinsville is the students that we have, who are so brilliant, and the teachers. They go the extra mile without even being asked.”
Students that don’t have internet at home are using flash drives, portable hotspot devices, and paper packets, Talley said.
“Equity is important. Some students have the internet. Some do not have the internet yet, but all of them will have technology,” Talley said.
He added that parents began receiving the new devices a week before the school year began and “it continues until we get one into everybody’s hands. We are accountable for every student.”
Talley said that the compulsory attendance rule is still in effect.
“We may not be at school, but students still have to register for school if they are under 18,” he said. “We have to track those students and we will. We are. We are giving an account of all of those students.”
Council Member Danny Turner asked how potential future evictions would affect learning and enrollment.
“We have homeless students and we work with them anywhere,” Talley said. “Even though the evictions have been stopped for a while, we are still prepared.”
Talley said homeless students can choose wherever they want to attend. “You can’t remove a student because they are homeless,” he added.
Enrollment is on-going and Talley said the first check is Sept. 30. He said the division has 10 days to enroll students, just as in a normal year.
“The state has given us a guideline of certain things that we can count as enrollment–logging into computers, completing assignments, registration–there are a myriad of things, about 10 things, that we can use to count for our official” enrollment numbers, Talley said.
On the first day, Talley said that a lot of work was done to address the mental aspect of the pandemic on students.
“Remember, some of these young people have lost people during this time. They’ve been shut-in too,” Talley said. “Learning is important, but again, we build relationships at Martinsville. That’s what’s important to us. When you build relationships, you don’t have a problem with learning, discipline or any other problems.”
Talley also said that the schools are still providing meals to students.
“We are teaching. We are feeding. We are doing everything but coming into personal contact right now,” he said.
When the schools can move to the next phase, Talley said that students with special needs and students that speak English as a second language (ELL) would be able to receive in-person instruction.
Talley said that each ELL student has a teacher assigned to them who is fluent in their individual language, adding that Spanish is the most common among Martinsville’s ELL students.
“We’ve already been reaching out to them,” Talley said. “All of them have been contacted. We have a coordinated central office. They will get the same care.”
Council Member Jennifer Bowles said she was grateful for all the work that has been done to ensure every student can learn from home.
“I do think that this is something that will be the wave of the future,” she said. “I know a lot of colleges and universities, even pre-COVID, were doing online learning. Like you said, ‘you can always find something positive in something negative,’ and these kids can be prepared for their futures and the education that they do above and beyond high school.”
At the close of the brief, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Angilee Downing read an email from a parent who gave their thoughts on the school’s virtual learning efforts.
“I know that today is just the second day but the prep behind these assignments is wonderful,” it read. “’Thank you. I’m enjoying teaching my child as much as he is enjoying learning. We really appreciate all the time and effort put into virtual schooling.’”