TUCKERMAN -- Jackson County School District administrators and teachers gathered Aug. 20 in the auditorium of the rural school for a training session on online learning, their second of the month.
The district is one of more than 170 of Arkansas' 263 public school districts and public charter schools that are using a learning management system from Philadelphia-based Lincoln Learning Solutions Inc. to provide virtual learning this fall, according to the Arkansas Public School Resource Center.
Several dozen mask-wearing parents and students entered the building that sits alongside a couple of cornfields and stopped for temperature checks before socially distancing in seats in the auditorium.
On a screen in front, administrators explained how to access the digital curriculum, how to submit assignments online and how to use Zoom, a videoconferencing service to communicate with classmates and teachers.
"This is uncharted territory for all of us," said Pharis Smith, the elementary school principal. "It is a whole new day. It is not just here at Jackson County. It is the same everywhere."
Only 10% of the 950 students in the district are learning from home this fall, a smaller percentage than in many other Arkansas districts.
Other districts are using learning management systems like Google Classroom, Schoology and Canvas -- software platforms that allow teachers to upload videos, assignments and other content.
Meanwhile, digital content providers offer pre-made curricula to supplement, or completely replace, what is used for in-person classes. Most schools are using a blend of curriculum developed by their own teachers and pre-made digital content, which can be combined through a learning management platform.
The state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education in June instructed all districts to have a learning management system and digital curriculum content in place for the fall, but state education officials left it up to districts to decide what type of online learning solutions to adopt.
Many schools have had some type of remote learning platform for years, but most have had to scramble to either bolster existing virtual options or to adopt new systems to instruct students remotely.
The Arkansas Department of Education, in collaboration with the nonprofit Arkansas Public School Resource Center, offers digital content and a learning management system to local districts from Lincoln Learning, a nonprofit that provides curriculum and education services.
Lincoln Learning's learning management system and pre-made content are available for free to districts this academic year.
The Education Department allocated $2.4 million in federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, for the collaboration with the school resource center, up to $310,000 of which is allocated for the center to assist schools in implementing the software.
The remaining $1.9 million allocated by the state pays for Lincoln Learning's services, including its Buzz Learning Management System and digital curriculum, which includes core and elective classes.
Lincoln Learning Solutions has come under scrutiny from state auditors in Pennsylvania.
In July, Pennsylvania's auditor general called for the state to change its charter school law after finding that Lincoln Learning had financial reserves of nearly $82 million as of June 30, 2018.
Lincoln Learning works with Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, "which receive millions of school tax dollars every year," according to a news release from the auditor's office.
State audits of the nonprofit found that "Lincoln Learning Solutions was operating without boundaries or accountability to the officials from either charter schools or to the taxpayers who were footing the bill," the news release said. "As a result, we have no idea what was provided by the management company in return for the public education money it received."
Lincoln Learning spent more than $600,000 over a four-year period to lobby legislators in Pennsylvania and other states, according to Pennsylvania's Department of the Auditor General. In comparison, similar nonprofit charter management companies in Pennsylvania reported spending no money on lobbying in tax filings, the department said.
In an email, a Lincoln Learning spokesman said the company supports changing Pennsylvania's charter school law and the state's auditor general efforts to prompt such changes. However, the company said the auditor general "continues to conflate the nature of our organization's function. We are a curriculum and services provider. Lincoln Learning Solutions does not manage schools."
The nonprofit said there were issues with its previous leadership and that it has replaced its entire board and executive team as part of an effort to repair its reputation.
The selection of Lincoln Learning for Arkansas schools came about because of a "long-standing relationship" between the state Education Department and the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, Education Department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell in an email.
"APRSC is a respected education association that is recognized by districts around the state," she wrote.
The U.S. Department of Education recognized the resource center in 2018 with a five-year, $23 million charter school program grant to support new and conversion charter school applicants and those seeking to expand, according to the center's fiscal 2019 tax filings.
In a separate email, center spokeswoman Christina Fowler said the nonprofit has used Lincoln Learning's products -- such as the company's Digital Learning Academy for home-schooling -- since 2018 as part of the center's virtual education solutions.
The resource center "conducted due diligence to select a provider," Fowler wrote in an email. "We researched several digital learning providers and found that Lincoln Learning Solutions offered a great return on investment for our state's districts, teachers and students."
Officials with the Education Department and the resource center -- whose mission is "to provide assistance and professional development services to children, parents, faculty and staff of open enrollment, public, charter and rural schools" -- declined requests for either in-person or phone interviews.
Arkansas isn't alone in offering virtual learning solutions for free to school districts.
Other state education departments have bought virtual solutions from companies to offer platforms and content for free as part of an effort to ease the burden on public schools, particularly more rural districts with fewer resources. The help provided by states has ranged from money to pay for the services to helping teachers and administrators learn and rapidly create content for at-home instruction.
Texas, for example, signed a partnership with online learning company PowerSchool to offer its learning management platform Schoology to all districts in the state for free for the next two years.
"What has been interesting is the number of states we have seen step into a leadership role from an equity perspective to make sure all of their districts, all of their teachers, all of their students have access to quality digital learning environments. Especially for small and more rural districts," said Tracy Weeks, an executive with remote learning company Instructure.
School districts in Arkansas using Lincoln Learning this year are concerned about the investment they might have to make if they continue to use the software.
Officials with the state Department of Education and the public school resource center said they have not decided whether they will offer the platform for free after the spring semester. Also, neither organization would say how much it might cost districts if they decide to continue using it after that.
Virtual education companies charge school districts using a range of metrics, such as how many students use their products. An online program could cost a district from several thousand dollars to more than $1 million.
The global learning management system market is projected to grow from $9.5 billion in 2019 to $29.9 billion by 2025, partly because of higher adoption rates related to the pandemic, according to a report from 360iResearch, a consulting and research firm based in India that serves a variety of clients.
"We are going to cross that bridge when we get there," said Taos Jones, virtual principal for Gravette School District in Northwest Arkansas. "Right now, we are trying to make the best of the situation in front of us. Hopefully if [Lincoln Learning] is great for us, then I am confident our district will pick up the tab to buy it if that is what it takes."
About 24% of Gravette's roughly 1,850 students have chosen to stay home this fall, Jones said.
The Little Rock School District, where 50% of nearly 25,000 students opted for virtual learning, did not select Lincoln Learning because of concerns over future costs.
"Honestly, the bottom line is I could not get a price," said Hope Worsham, Little Rock School District's head of instruction and curriculum. "I did not feel comfortable putting our teachers on one platform this year and not knowing what it was going to cost me for subsequent years. That was the bottom line, being fiscally responsible."
The Little Rock district paid PowerSchool $165,438 for the use of its Schoology learning management system for kindergarten-through-12th-grade virtual learning for the 2020-21 academic year, according to invoices obtained by the Democrat-Gazette. That payment was the first for a three-year agreement. The district paid $20,262.32 to Seesaw Learning Inc. for the use of its Seesaw LMS in pre-kindergarten for two years.
The district used CARES funding to cover costs for this school year, but in subsequent years will pay for the platforms out of dedicated funds already in place for online platforms, Worsham said.
According to an Arkansas Education Department survey, 14 other districts are using Schoology, including the Fort Smith School District, which signed a one-year $52,825 contract with PowerSchool to use the platform for 7,750 students in six secondary schools and three elementary schools, according to invoices obtained by the newspaper.
The Fort Smith district is spending $1.9 million for digital curriculum from Pearson Connexus, a virtual academy operated by the Britain-based Pearson Education. The district is also covering costs with federal pandemic relief money.
The 1,400-student Fountain Lake School District, near Hot Springs, spent $2,750 to use the Seesaw LMS this year in its elementary school. Middle, junior high and high school students are using Google Classroom, which is free.
"This is our first attempt to take all of the learning and place it in a digital model," Fountain Lake Superintendent Michael Murphy said. "There are costs all across the board with this model."
Murphy said the district has already spent its $168,000 in CARES funding and had spent almost $300,000 before school opened on pandemic preparations, ranging from cleaning supplies to digital content, like MyON, a platform that offers students digital books.
"In our instance, the only thing I have is we were able to refinance some debt," Murphy said. "Without that, I would be pulling into our reserve funds."
Google Classroom is used widely in Arkansas, and is especially helpful for many districts because it is free, but some school officials said it does have limitations.
"It was intended to be a space for teachers to share information, but it does have a limitation as far as a [learning management system]," said Worsham, of the Little Rock School District. "Because our students are fully virtual, it lends itself to needing a full LMS."
Schoology enables teachers to build classes and archive them from year-to-year and functions as a tool for administrators to share resources with the entire district, she said.
Other than costs, Fountain Lake's Murphy also expressed concern about how the shift to virtual will affect teachers and students in his district, where 50% of students are classified as low income, according to the Education Department.
"My fear is there may be some individuals selecting virtual who are setting themselves up for failure," Murphy said. "We are placing in the virtual environment undue stress and burden on parents. There will be a learning curve for the kids and for the community."
Research focused on the effectiveness of online learning is all over the board, with studies finding that in some instances virtual classrooms are useful for students taking remedial courses while others conclude that learning online is not as effective as a face-to-face setting.
Shay Hopper, coordinator of the Virtual Innovation Academy in the Springdale district's Tyson School of Innovation, acknowledged that one can find research that reflects poorly on distance learning but expressed confidence that students can succeed in programs such as Springdale's.
A crucial piece, she said, is that the program is run by a public school district. District administrators support and invest in the program, and the teachers are highly qualified, Hopper said.
"It's the accountability," said Melinda Bunyard, a former teacher at Springdale's Turnbow Elementary, who now works for the Virtual Innovation Academy.
The Innovation Academy posts lessons in Google Classroom for each core subject, and Bunyard, who teaches 25 fifth-graders, can monitor students' progress throughout the day.
"If I see a child is struggling or needing some support, then I immediately get on with them either in an email or through Google Meets or Zoom, and offer them support," she said.
Hopper wanted to make one thing clear: The education that kids are getting in her virtual school today is completely different from what they experienced during the spring when schools were closed.
"That was a response to an emergency," Hopper said. "This is 100% different. This is planned and prepared and staffed and supported, ready to go on the front-end."
Paul Reville, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and former education secretary for Massachusetts, said online education has "enormous potential," but a quality program can't be built overnight. There are numerous choices schools must make in terms of platforms, curricula and materials that go into building such a program, he said.
"And for the most part, our school systems are not steeped in curating all those providers, all those options, and making good choices," Reville said.
Teachers also need a lot of training to feel confident and capable of leading an online classroom to take advantage of its assets and compensate as best they can for its limitations, he said.
A recent survey conducted by Upbeat, an education research firm, found that teachers reported only 60% of students were engaged in remote learning on a regular basis during school closings in the spring because of covid-19. Teachers in high-poverty schools reported that 50% of students regularly engaged in online classes.
It also found that teachers' sense of success teaching remotely dropped from 96% for in-classroom settings to 73% for online.
"Teachers are having meltdowns," Little Rock's Worsham said. "The learning curve is steep. We have told teachers just learn how to use the tools, start there."
Worsham said the hope is that in two to three years the Little Rock district will "be in a place where it is not just about using the system but how we can really enhance learning through the system."
"We are all going to have to be flexible in this situation," she said.
Henry Anderson, superintendent of Marvell-Elaine, a district that stretches across eight rural communities in the Delta, said he is concerned about losing faculty members.
The district is using a combination of Google Classroom and Edgenuity, which offers virtual instructors and online classes to supplement a school's course offerings.
"We are really concerned about how much support we are giving teachers," Anderson said. "Certain teachers with a certain number of years can just fold up shop. New teachers can change careers."
"It has been a very tough situation," said Smith, the Jackson County elementary principal. "Not just for Jackson County School District but for every school district in Arkansas."
Information for this article was contributed by Dave Perozek of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.