Virtual learning will bump up budget

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Murray County Schools Superintendent Steve Loughridge warned school board members at a meeting on Thursday that additional spending may have to be added to the system's 2020-21 budget.

The board recently approved and advertised a tentative operating budget of $62.5 million, but Loughridge made clear at the time that changes could still be made before the board votes on the budget at its August meeting.

Murray County schools will offer traditional classroom instruction when the school year starts on Sept. 8. But a virtual learning option, with all instruction provided online, will also be offered. School officials are in the process of determining how many students will take advantage of the virtual classroom option.

The superintendent told members on Thursday that "some cost" will have to added to pay for a virtual learning platform for K-5 students. The school system already has a virtual learning system for grades 6-12.

"We don't know how much this will cost," said Loughridge. "The number of participants will determine cost."

Loughridge said the parents of 241 K-5 students have shown “a serious interest” in the virtual learning option -- 35 kindergartners, 51 in the first grade, 36 in the second grade, 41 in the third grade, 31 in the fourth grade and 47 in the fifth grade.

Virtual learning is different from the "distance learning" that students experienced last spring when schools were abruptly closed. Virtual learning classes will have an instructor who communicates with "classes" online. Students will be able to get live instruction or watch a tape of that day's classes at their convenience. Parental involvement will be stressed.

Interested parents have already submitted "letters of intent. They will be asked to watch an online orientation at noon on Aug. 12 and, if interested, sign a contract committing their child to virtual learning for a minimum of one semester. Students will not be allowed to opt out during the semester.

Students participating in virtual learning instruction  will not be eligible for extracurricular activities including varsity sports.

"You can't have it both ways," said Loughridge. "If the reason you are choosing totally virtual learning is your concern about exposure, then you can't participate in the other activities," he said. "It would be inconsistent."

Loughridge told board members that teachers with medical conditions that make them hesitant to teach face-to-face because of the COVID-19 pandemic will get first consideration for virtual learning positions.

The school system purchased more than 7,000 Chromebooks and touch pads earlier this year. Whether or not those devices will be made available to virtual learners will be decided later, according to school officials.

School officials have also been working on a plan to make internet access more widely available to students throughout the county.

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