Ahead of a special-called Williamson County Schools board of education meeting Sept. 9, several parents gathered in Franklin to protest how the district is handling online learning for students.

Outside the WCS Professional Development building, more than two dozen parents and students held up signs asking for equal opportunities to learn as school board members walked into the meeting space.

After quickly organizing the event and spreading the word on social media, protestors arrived with signs calling for the district to abandon Edgenuity, an online learning platform being used by the district.

Event organizers said that because the district is not currently allowing the public to attend live meetings due to COVID-19 restrictions, they chose to gather outside the building.

Parents at the event said the online learning option offered to students who do not want to return to on-campus learning is not what they believed was promised by the district.

According to the district website, the WCS Online program is mostly independent for higher grades but should include some live instruction. However, parents are arguing this has not been the case and that their children are not getting enough interaction with WCS teachers.

Brian Coons, a WCS parent, cited a WCS document circulating through the group that stated, "in the rare occasion that a WCS teacher is not available for a course, a teacher will be assigned from an online vendor." According to the document, that option is only intended for high school students.

Coons said the usage of third-party vendors does not seem to be as rare as intended.

"In the rare occasion? It's all occasions," Coons said.

Other parents expressed similar frustration and said they want their children to have more instruction from WCS teachers. Parents at the event cited a number of reasons for choosing online learning for their children, from preexisting conditions to trying to give their children consistency during the school year.

"I thought what we were doing is that we would have Zoom," WCS parent Mandy Moore said. "They would record the teachers in the classes with the kids, live-time, so our children would be doing exactly what those kids are doing. That's what I thought we were signing up for. We didn't sign up for home-schooling. We want to be online with Williamson County."

Moore said had she known the online learning program would be as it is, she would have sent her child for in-person instruction.

"I asked my son today—I said, 'Do you feel like you're just going through the motions to check off the boxes? Do you feel like you're learning anything?' Because that's what it is: one task after the other," she said. "I know we signed up for online, but that's not what I thought it was going to be."

However, parents said they do not blame teachers for the lack of face-to-face interaction with online students, as they now have a number of added responsibilities with in-person students now back at school.

"I feel like we're this redheaded stepchild because [teachers] have so much on their plate with the kids at school trying to keep the kids safe," Moore said. "[A teacher has] a full class at school, but she's doing online, too? She's got to deal with [in-person children] first—I get it. I don't mean to be bitter, but they can only do so much."

Parents said they want to work with the district to develop a new plan for online learners rather than commit to the current plan for an entire semester.

"We're not too far in this. We can correct this ship," WCS parent Maureen O'Sullivan said. "There's time. We're only one month in—I think that's what a lot of us are struggling with. Is there time, or do we all have to figure out something else? What do we do? It's a helplessness when your child is stressing."

During the WCS meeting, board members also expressed frustration after hearing feedback from parents.

"I don’t understand," District 6 Board Member Jay Galbreath said during the meeting. "How hard it is to turn on your computer? We’re not talking hours and hours of training here, they’ve used Zoom. Turn on Zoom and start your lecture. I’ve heard [staff] say this is taking tons of effort and I get it, there’s some times in the class period that are small group that probably aren’t related, but at the start of every class period I think its acceptable to expect our students who are learning remotely to be there at the beginning of every class period and then they can determine what parts of that class period they need to participate in."

However Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools Leigh Webb said the district uses Edgenuity for some courses as it does not have an online course built for every subject offered. She said while the district has built several courses through WCS Online, courses take about a year to build and the district has not had enough time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit to move build all courses in-house.

"It’s important to note that not every course we’re currently teaching during the pandemic is a course that we had a pre-written course for or that we were able to find created,” Webb said.

Additionally, Webb said the district also had concerns about internet bandwidth if all students and teachers are using computers at the same time.

we haven’t said everybody turn your Zoom on as we were uncertain of our bandwidth capacity, especially as students return to school from remote to on-campus—every student in the building engaging with their Chromebooks," Webb said. "We have been cautious at the beginning to make sure we don’t overload our bandwidth in any particular building."

However, Webb said this issue could soon improve as the district's IT department is now estimating more teachers can use programs like Zoom.

"We do feel like we can increase at this point up to 50% of teachers, and maybe even more than that video zooming," she said.

District staff and Superintendent Jason Golden encouraged parents during the board meeting to continue to communicate with campus principals if they feel their student is not getting enough interaction.

"I want you to know that the concern you’ve heard from families is real,” Golden said. "I want to make sure that we’re respectful and recognize that our commitment is to serve every student and ultimately you’re going to see some plans from our staff that address a lot of those issues in a broad sense, but ultimately those specific one-to-one relationships really are key to so much of what we’re doing with our students."

Editor's note: This story was updated to add comments from the Sept. 9 WCS meeting as they became available.