Classrooms across Volusia County are more crowded than they were at the beginning of the school year, and the in-school population is continuing to grow.

“This is definitely a health and safety issue, and will negatively impact student achievement,” said Elizabeth Albert, president of Volusia United Educators, the county’s teachers union.

Many classrooms that started the school year sparsely populated, allowing for easy social distancing, now have more students. The increased numbers make it difficult to follow guidelines in the school system’s reopening plan, like social distancing when possible.

Class sizes are growing for a number of reasons: For one, there’s a countywide teacher shortage. Also, students who’ve been in online classes are beginning to return to brick-and-mortar schools, some of them because of poor grades.

According to Volusia County Schools Community Information Director Kelly Schulz, 65 percent of middle-school and 67 percent of high-school students enrolled in the Volusia Live online learning program have at least one “D” or “F” grade.

A statement released by Volusia County Schools Oct. 5 said that students “not demonstrating adequate progress” in Volusia Live will transition back into brick-and-mortar classes.

Schulz said any student enrolled in Volusia Live who has a grade under a “C” has been identified by the district. Those students will be advised on a case-by-case basis to return to physical classes.

Student shifts

At the start of this school year, fewer students showed up in physical classrooms than the district anticipated. The district’s projections were made before COVID-19, and this semester, students have more learning options than they typically do.

There’s Florida Virtual School, a self-paced internet-based option; Volusia Online Learning, the county’s equivalent to Virtual School that focuses on students learning at their own pace; and Volusia Live, the program designed because of COVID-19, which allows students to stream classroom lessons live at home, in real time.

With fewer students than anticipated, the head count led the district to combine classrooms. Classes taught by substitute teachers, or classrooms with too few students, were eliminated.

But now, as students who began in a virtual program move back into traditional schooling, classrooms that once had eight to 10 students now have twice as many or more.

VUE President Elizabeth Albert said while it’s important to allow students to move among options this year, packing classrooms will eliminate any chance of social distancing.

“As students are leaving our online or distance-learning options and being received in classrooms, we are finding that those sizes are exponentially increasing,” she said.

Students who aren’t failing in Volusia Live, but simply disliked it, or have had a hard time adjusting to remote learning, have also been encouraged to move back to in-person classes.

According to Albert, that was not the plan at the beginning of the school year.

“If you are moving kids to and fro, you are creating an unstable environment. We were assured from the beginning there would be hard benchmarks — parents would have to make commitments to grading periods or semesters,” she said. “What we are seeing is schools have relaxed those rules. Kids are moving all of the time.”

Volusia Live won’t be around forever. The program is currently planned to operate only until Jan. 22. The decision to further extend such programs is up to the state, and Schulz said she thinks it is unlikely.

Schulz stressed that there will still be other options available for parents when Volusia Live goes away, including Volusia Online Learning, as well as Florida Virtual School.

Another change in the works is likely to put even more students in classrooms.

Volusia County Schools is in the process of eliminating “blended classrooms,” where teachers have students both in-person and digitally through Volusia Live.

This has been one of the teachers union’s demands for some time, as blended classrooms add to the teachers’ burden, Albert said.

“Anything that creates a barrier must be eliminated,” she said. “Teaching both groups at the same time is a barrier.”

Albert said she is worried about making class sizes even larger with this move, but in the long run, she said, separating Volusia Live and face-to-face teaching will make things easier on everyone.

Schulz said with the elimination of blended classrooms, Volusia Live will be taught by teachers who dedicate all of their time to it. There will be another wave of schedule changes on Nov. 4 to accommodate some teachers changing from blended to all-virtual.

She sees the need for it, but Albert continues to worry about moving students around so much. She fears that repeatedly adjusting the protocol for Volusia Live and in-person learning, could unnecessarily expose students and staff to COVID-19.

“To have no plan or strategy and just react, every single day, that’s unsustainable,” she said.

Unprecedented times and unpredictable problems

Teacher union President Elizabeth Albert said the problems haven’t been limited to class sizes. The distribution of personal protective equipment has also been rocky, she said.

One case she mentioned was the roughly 80,000 desk shields the school district purchased for classrooms and cafeterias throughout the county. The shields, according to Albert, are one-size-fits-all, which hasn’t worked out.

“In the middle- and high-school setting, the shields aren’t big enough to make a difference. Their heads stick over the top,” Albert said, adding, “We haven’t always made wise choices in spending our money. We end up wasting it.”

According to Volusia County Schools Community Information Director Kelly Schulz, the district did purchase thousands of larger desk shields for high-school students, as well. It's unclear which, if any, schools got them.

The district is still trying to figure out how to foot the bill for all the PPE that’s been necessary.

“We’re spending about $108,000 a week on PPE,” VCS Chief Financial Officer Debra Muller said. “We’re anticipating about $4 million this year, possibly more.”

Some of that will be covered by federal CARES Act money, but VCS builds its budget based on the number of full-time-enrolled students, and the district receives more money for students enrolled in-person than students enrolled in a virtual program.

With so many variables this year, Muller said, the Department of Education will forgive some budgetary mistakes this semester, but she said she doesn't know about next semester.

Some things will be clearer after Oct. 26, when the school system will conduct another count of how many students are still learning online, and how many have returned to school.

Student enrollment, as of Sept. 28

  • 37,748 students in brick-and-mortar classrooms.
  • 15,069 students enrolled in Volusia Live, the program that allows students to remotely stream lessons from the classroom in real time.
  • 8,038 students enrolled in Volusia Online Learning, the program that allows students to work at their own pace through pre-built online courses.