Russellville School District superintendent Dr. Mark Gotcher said there was a sense of urgency behind the Russellville School Board's decision to end "Option B" virtual learning at the 9-week mark for students K-8 during the regularly called school board meeting on Tuesday.
Gotcher said the item, which did not appear on the agenda, was added as an addendum and approved for vote by the required three-fourths vote along with the other addendum items listed under "other."
"It was a decision made by the board after the agenda was set, so it was moved to the 'other' section," Gotcher said. "It was a motion that was presented after the agenda was set. We always have a placeholder on the agenda. It's not unusual. There are things that come up in between when the agenda is set and the board meeting."
Twenty-eight percent of Russellville students are option B -- approximately 1,500 students -- and assuming each of those students has at least one caregiver, last night's decision impacted well over 3,000 students and parents who many felt were unable to give their input before a vote was made.
The decision caused a stir on social media Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Gotcher explained the school district did not eliminate virtual learning altogether and students are not being forced to return to the school building if they are unwilling.
"We did not eliminate a virtual option," he said. "You can go Lincoln Learning, which is virtual Option C," he said. "We currently have 64 students there, but the misconception is we eliminated virtual learning altogether. We eliminated Option B only. If you want to continue to be a virtual learner, we will enroll you in virtual learning for K-8."
The board said they will revisit ending Option B for grades 9-12 at the end of the first semester.
Gotcher said the decision was urgent because of the amount of time it is taking classroom teachers to prepare Option A and Option B, though they are preparing the same lesson.
"They are still trying to spend time trying to get ahold of parents or students who are offsite," he said. "The burden on teachers has been challenging, and we have a lot of students that are not engaged in the Google Classroom lessons."
By "not engaged," Gotcher means the students are not completing their work. Gotcher would not say how many but emphasized it was "many."
"I feel like we are having much more success with the Lincoln Learning than with the online learning in Option B," he said. "We can't continue going the way we are and expect our teachers to deliver the same kind of instruction."
Still, the decision did cause panic for many parents. The board introduced an item not listed by name on the agenda that impacted many families and voted on it that same night. Some parents said it felt as if the district pulled a rug out from under their feet.
Jessica Freeman, who has special needs students in the Russellville School District, wondered why the district couldn't have presented the information during the school board meeting, tabled it and voted on it in a special called meeting a week later. That way, she said, at least the parents could have their concerns heard.
Perhaps, she said, they could have addressed many of their concerns directly.
Gotcher answered this question when asked: "I'm sure it was possible, but that was the board's decision, and I work for the board."
"It feels like an unwinnable decision," Freeman said. "It was the biggest letdown. We were made promises on how this was going to be. We were guided and made the best decision for our family. We don't have a clue what we are going to do right now. There is so much confusion. I love Dr. Gotcher, but I feel like he let the district down last night. I felt very, very let down by our district, and I bleed Red and Black from the Class of 1998."
Renae Taylor, who also has kids in the district, said she was disappointed with the way the vote was conducted.
"Obviously, I don’t want to lose the option for a myriad of reasons but what was particularly disappointing is how the vote was conducted," she said. "...From my observation, it was their intent to push forward with the vote no matter what. The school district had training sessions and meetings to implement the option and now, after three weeks, they abandon it with no effort to correct whatever issues they’re having with the option ... the issue is transparency. These actions were taken without giving the public proper notice or information.
Taylor said transparency could have solved many of the issues this vote caused for parents.
"The board knew this was a controversial item," she said.