After more than an hour of discussion Monday, the Franklin County school board voted unanimously to begin the 2020-21 school year with 100% virtual learning.

FCS will have a phased plan for reopening, and the first phase is virtual learning for all students for the first six weeks of the school year.

The board approved its school calendar, and classes will begin Aug. 26.

The plan is to reassess the situation after six weeks depending on COVID-19 cases.

Mark Kopp, the FCS superintendent, made the recommendation to go with the phased plan. He said the district had received over 5,000 responses to surveys sent to parents and over 700 responses from staff.

"With all that information, we have done everything in our power to try and come up with a way to try and bring students back in person," Kopp said. "Frankly, to be honest with you, every avenue we approached would lead to new challenges.

"The mantra we live by is the safety of our students and staff is our No. 1 priority. To make any other recommendation other than virtual, the way numbers rising in the state, we would be betraying that mantra."

Kopp said responses from parents showed that 59.5% wanted in-person instruction and 40.5% wanted virtual learning.

"We had a core committee with 19 people on it," Kopp said. "We had our last meeting last week. All 19 people, when asked what would you do, would you try to come back in some kind of hybrid, ... voted for 100% virtual.

"What we're looking at in a phased approach is beginning the year virtually with the hope of getting to in-person instruction at some point. To give ourselves the best chance of ensuring safety, the best option, at least at the beginning, is to do virtual."

Kopp said virtual learning would have rigorous instruction, and grades would be based on achievement, not just participation.

He said an additional 150 wireless hotspots have been purchased, giving the district a total of 180 hotspots, and that different ways to use the hotspots, including in buses in rural areas, are being considered.

Kopp said that each student will have a Chromebook, a hybrid laptop-tablet computer, to use for virtual learning, and that limited school services might allow small groups into schools for services such as after-school programs, special education, speech pathology and gifted and talented programs.

Board member Larry Perkins voiced concern about how struggling students will do with virtual learning, while board member Justin Watterson was worried about how elementary-age students will adapt to virtual learning and the effect virtual learning will have on parents.

"I can assure you our staff is up to the task," Kopp said, addressing Perkins' concerns. "We will monitor it and we're going to work to make this work.

"I appreciate all your input, I really do," he told the board. "This is what we've been struggling with for weeks. There is no perfect solution."

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