Fayette County Public schools started classes learning from home Aug. 26, but Tricia Holliday said last week her first and third grader hadn’t been able to participate virtually. She doesn’t have home internet access and her children’s school didn’t have a hotspot mobile device for them.

After Holliday posted about the problem on social media, “they were able to resolve the issue” for her family, she said Sunday, “but it’s hundreds of others just like me.”

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.

Fayette County has been offering hotspots to families without internet access at home and the hotspots have been in high demand. District Technology Director Bob Moore said in late August the district had distributed 1,100 hot spots and was ordering more.

Holliday is among the Fayette County parents who have posted in a new Facebook group that drew more than 1,300 members in its first week and, in part, takes aim at the district’s back-to-school decisions.

Tricia Holliday said her children Marvin Holliday, left and Serena Holliday haven’t been able join in virtual Fayette County Public Schools classes days into the school year because a hot spot mobile device was not available until Friday. Photo provided

Unrelated to Holliday’s post, Superintendent Manny Caulk said at a virtual meeting of the Lexington Forum Thursday that 300 families in the district need hotspots for internet connectivity and he is hoping that after Labor Day, the district will receive 500 hotspots to reduce learning loss. In a letter to families Friday night, he said more hot spots would be arriving the week of September 14.

District officials said in a statement Saturday that the school had been working with Holliday individually to provide alternate lessons for her children and text videos of lessons to her phone. Once district officials were made aware of the situation, a hotspot was provided for her family to pick up at the school Friday, the statement said.

Comments made in the new “Let Them Learn in Fayette County” Facebook group range from calls for in-person learning to criticisms of poor communication with families.

Parents want more details on what in-person learning will look like in public schools in Lexington. Administrator Greg Prince said Thursday in a post, “This group does not fault our teachers! We want answers from the board.”

Holliday’s Facebook comments that her children could not participate virtually caught the attention of school board chairwoman Stephanie Spires, who said she shared the information with Caulk and asked him to have staff contact the family.

Spires said she’s aware that families in the Facebook group are asking for more communication from district officials as students learn from home during the coronavirus pandemic. She said she plans for the school board to talk about the communication issues between families and the district at the Sept. 14 board planning meeting.

“I want to make sure this group feels heard,” she said. At-home and virtual learning is not ideal and kids need to be in the classroom, Spires said, “but this is the best of the worst options.”

“Yes there has been glitches,” Spires said, “but overall the feedback has been more positive than negative.”

Members of the Facebook group plan to have peaceful protests at the district’s Central Office later in the month. One moderator, Kristin Childress, said she is not convinced that it’s unsafe for all children to return to school buildings.

“The programs that have been put in place for online learning are absolutely not working,” said Childress. She noted that other Kentucky school district and private school officials are listening to parents and are safely returning to in-person learning. (A few schools shut down when coronavirus cases broke out.)

Another of the Facebook group’s members, Jamie Downs, said Fayette parents will need several weeks to prepare for in-person learning and she doesn’t think enough details have been released.

She is sending one of her two school age children, a kindergartner, to a private school this fall after pulling her out of Fayette County.

“I could not do it, physically help her in a 30-kid ZOOM call with crashing Chromebooks, take care of my 2-year-old and help my first grader, who is doing math,” said Downs.

“Fayette County has not listened to the parents whatsoever,” she said. “Many of these children have just been left behind” as they tried to adapt to a virtual model.

Spires said district officials are trying to provide families with as much information as possible.

“We know that parents need a plan,” she said at the Lexington Forum. Caulk said district officials are currently customizing the return-to-school plan in terms of number of desks in a classroom, whether to use plexiglass and other specifics.

Spires said she had responded to every email from families that had a direct request and has read all e-mails.

On a district survey of families – which had a more than 49 percent participation rate – 84 percent of families rated the quality of communication from the district as excellent or good, and 80 percent of families said the amount of communication was “just right,” officials said.

One parent in the ‘Let Them Learn’ Facebook group said in a post Thursday night that when he wrote school board members saying his child was unable to participate in virtual learning because of the severity of her special needs, he received four personal e-mails including one from Caulk.

District officials said parents were on task forces that made recommendations on reopening schools. Caulk acknowledged that families and employees favored in surveys a hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning for the 2020-2021 school year. Students would have attended classes on alternate days. But Caulk said based on conversations with health officials and community spread of positive COVID-19 cases, that was determined unsafe.

“I’d rather have loss of learning than loss of life,” said Caulk. “We can always recover the learning. You can never recover a loss of life.”

District officials said a second Facebook group — one that supports the district — was also popular.

“We hope the media will give fair and balanced consideration to the views reflected in the We Support Fayette County Public Schools group that has garnered more than a thousand members in just a few short hours,” the district’s statement said. “This group’s perspective should be given equal consideration.”

This fall, as Lexington has seen a surge of COVID-19 cases, Caulk has said that in-person classes will not begin at least until the last of September. He said Thursday the district would revisit the decision at four to six week intervals based on the number of coronavirus cases.

Students are currently either learning through enhanced non-traditional instruction or a separate Virtual Learning Academy , both from home. At the recommendation of Gov. Andy Beshear, Kentucky schools shut down to in-person learning in March and he has asked that they not return in-person until Sept. 28.

Caulk said technology has been a huge challenge. Early glitches that have been solved include brief internet outages and issues with learning platforms, he said.

The district also has had a delay in a large Chromebook shipment but Caulk said at the Thursday virtual meeting that one shipment came in Wednesday. His Friday letter said an additional 2,000 had arrived. Chromebook repairs have been a test of the district’s systems, he said. Students won’t be penalized for not having a computer and teachers will work with families to make sure all students can participate in learning, said Caulk.

Holliday, a single mother of four who works as a nurse’s assistant, said she can’t yet afford internet service but her children have been given Chromebooks from the district. Holliday used her cell phone to access the internet and use email.

Holliday said her school-age children who stay at a daycare while she works, used textbooks while they waited for their hotspot. Fayette County, she said, “should have had a head count of kids (who needed hotspots) months ahead.”

Staff writer Valarie Honeycutt Spears covers K-12 education, social issues and other topics. She is a Lexington native with southeastern Kentucky roots.

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