Treasure Cosie smiles for a picture after her interview with reporter Kelsey Betz.

Even before the pandemic, Treasure Cosie was already on a path to not have a geometry teacher her junior year at Leland High School.

Her school district isn’t technically designated as a Critical Teacher Shortage area by the Mississippi Department of Education, but there aren’t enough teachers to teach even core subjects like math.

“You’re expecting to have a teacher teach you something you didn’t know before, but you don’t get that because you don’t have a teacher in the class,” Cosie said about her geometry course.

Instead of having an educator who can work with her in real time, her district uses an online program called Grade Results that essentially relies on students to self-teach. Students work through different sets of problems, get electronically graded on them, and if they get something wrong, they have no one to ask why. 

The stress of this was only made worse by the pandemic, explained Cosie, whose classes have been all virtual since the pandemic hit. 

“It’s depressing to some kids because they’re used to teachers explaining stuff to them. Everybody learns differently,” she said. “… And we’re dealing with this pandemic plus on top of not having teachers. It just makes you want to quit it all.”

In Mississippi, she’s not alone in being enrolled in this type of program instead of having an actual teacher. The practice is increasingly common, even in school districts not chronically plagued with teacher shortages.

When the pandemic hit, many schools in Mississippi looked to a company called Edgenuity to help serve virtual students. Districts in areas of the state hardest hit by the teacher shortage had been using the online course provider for years, but this year, even students in some of the largest, high-performing districts like Madison and DeSoto are using the program to earn initial or traditional credits.

Courses offered through online learning programs like Edgenuity are different from the virtual learning methods that schools across the country turned to as the pandemic broke out. With a typical virtual learning class, educators teach online in real time through platforms like Zoom. If that doesn’t happen, the teacher will still have designated times to work with students. 

Either way, there is intentional student-teacher interaction where students can ask questions and teachers can explain lessons. But this is not the case with programs like Edgenuity, where the only education professional connected to the program is a school district “facilitator” who may or may not know anything about the subject they’re facilitating. 

Previously only used for credit recovery (when students get the chance to retake a course they previously failed) and summer school, virtual students in Madison County could take Edgenuity courses such as physics, AP U.S. government and psychology as part of their coursework for the year. 

But Jan Richardson, the parent of a 10th-grader at Ridgeland High School, said there are problems with the program. Although a teacher or administrator is technically assigned to each of the Edgenuity courses, the reality is that for much of the year, they struggled to find answers for her son’s questions when he had an issue.

“We had a facilitator assigned to the class, but their role was not well-defined to us. We didn’t always have someone certified in the subject area assigned to help, so the students seem to be on their own,” said Richardson.

Last semester, her son and all other virtual students were supervised as a group by the district rather than their individual school, she said. When he needed help with his Personal Finance class, Richardson emailed a district employee. 

“(My son’s) question is that when he takes a test it doesn’t report back what questions were missed so it isn’t possible to learn what one got wrong,” she wrote. “He also had a concern (about) a question on a recent test where he said the answer didn’t seem correct based on the content taught. He wanted to go over that with someone.” 

The district employee responded that he did not have an answer because it is a “completely self-taught course/platform. However, I will consult with the individual that oversees Edgenuity for the district and see if there is any info I can pass along.”

Richardson then went to Edgenuity. 

“The Edgenuity representative told me the role of the assigned teacher was to field student questions, communicate with Edgenuity, and help the student if they are struggling with something. The intention is not for students to be on their own,” she said. 

Richardson and her son never got those particular issues resolved, but she did say since the district changed the way it oversees virtual students this semester, more help has been available. 

Amanda Coyle, a spokeswoman for Edgenuity, said the company provides schools with guidance on best practices for use of their programs, “as well as the option to toggle settings and customize the way their classroom leverages Edgenuity.”

“However, we do not have influence over — or insight into — the way these teachers actually choose to engage with their students or assign workloads,” she said. 

Mississippi’s use of these programs is happening as the critical teacher shortage persists and teacher pay remains low. Though the legislature recently passed a $1,000 raise for teachers, average Mississippi teacher pay ranks lowest in the Southeast and nation. Low pay is one of the most common listed reasons as the cause of the teacher shortage. 

School districts designated as critical teacher shortage areas rose from 49 school districts in 2018-2019 to 54 in 2019-2020 (the latest data available). This data only considers the percentage of teachers who are not properly certified; MDE does not track teacher vacancies. 

Teacher vacancies, however, are the reason why some school districts turn to programs like Edgenuity. 

The number of school districts that use these programs has remained somewhat steady during the past five years. But from the 2018-2019 school year to the 2019-2020 school year, the number of courses in the state through programs like Edgenuity increased from 381 to 670. During the 2020-2021 school year there were again 670 courses offered through online courses. 

Graphic created by Bethany Atkinson

Edgenuity has been the subject of scrutiny recently, particularly during the pandemic. Parents in a Tennessee school district picketed outside a school board meeting at the beginning of the school year. They said the online options offered through Edgenuity were supposed to be accompanied by a district teacher, but that was not happening. 

A high schooler in Nevada wrote to her local newspaper to share problems she experienced with Edgenuity.

“When I begin my assignments, it becomes clear that no one really cares about my education. Most of the Edgenuity assignments are graded immediately upon submission, simply based on ‘keywords’ the system looks for in my responses,” she wrote. “So far in this school year, I have received an estimated 30-40 automatic 0% grades in my various classes … To make matters worse, it seems no one at my school, nor the district, nor Edgenuity knows exactly how to correct the error.” 

It’s unclear which districts in Mississippi are using Edgenuity and similar programs because of the pandemic, the teacher shortage, to expand course offerings or some combination of those. 

But the Mississippi Department of Education did have to conduct an additional review of approved courses over the summer due to “additional demand” created by the pandemic, a spokeswoman for the department said.

The use of Edgenuity also grew nationwide, according to Amanda Coyle, a spokesperson for the company. 

“K-12 schools were already increasing use of digital curricula and tools, but the pandemic fueled increased — and wider — use,” she said, noting Edgenuity is used by more than 20,000 schools, including 20 of the 25 largest school districts in the country.

Nathan Oakley, chief academic officer for the state education department, said ideally, schools have a designated person facilitating the online course.

“If I were in a school, I would say, ‘OK, do I have somebody on staff for a period of day that students in that online course can come (to) if they need technical assistance or support with software?’” said Oakley. “There may be a point person in the school in each content area or at the school level at least so the students get a touch point at the school.” 

Education advocates have argued for years that this reasoning is a “band-aid” fix that is used instead of working to get qualified teachers into critical shortage areas, which is ultimately damaging to kids. 

“Online learning platforms like that where you don’t have a teacher just scream, ‘Nobody cares about you,’” said Lucas Rapisarda, a former program director at the Rosedale Freedom Project, during a 2018 interview with Mississippi Today. “It screams we have to create a program where we have to pre-record people talking to you because nobody else would come to your school. I see it in the kids every single day. That’s where their indifference comes from. Because they don’t think that anybody cares.”

Instructor Lucas Rapisarda, right, helps Kasha Williams, 17, with work during their session at Rosedale Freedom Project in Rosedale Thursday, November 1, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

The Rosedale Freedom project serves students in the West Bolivar Consolidated School District, administrators have turned to Edgenuity as the critical teacher shortage persists.

Yazoo County School District used Edgenuity and other online platforms several years ago for credit recovery but recently began using Edgenuity specifically for initial credit, remediation courses and test prep courses. 

During the pandemic, the district does not use it for virtual learners like Madison County does, however, except for one special circumstance involving a social studies course.

“Students have been able to take several classes through Edgenuity that weren’t available on campus for a variety of reasons, but it basically boils down to numbers. Whether it’s limited teacher certifications or limited student interest in a course, we have to utilize our staff in the most cost-effective way possible,” explained Amy Trammell, graduation coach for the district. “Smaller districts (like ours) can’t afford to assign a teacher to teach a class of 10 or fewer students… Edgenuity has been a tremendous help in filling that gap.” 

Instead, virtual learners primarily use Canvas and are taught directly by local teachers.

“With Edgenuity being somewhat self-paced, we decided that virtual students would perform better with assistance from one of our local teachers,” she said.

Trammell said some students do better with the “self-paced” courses than others, but she believes the presence of a facilitator who oversees students’ progress and answers any technical questions helps the students perform better. 

“Through trial and error, we have discovered that students who are successful in Edgenuity are those who are assigned time during the school day to work on their coursework. We have a facilitator who oversees their progress and encourages them to complete assignments daily,” said Trammell. 

While the facilitator may not be able to provide academic assistance depending on the situation, tutors or other subject-area specialists can help students who are struggling. 

Back in Leland, Treasure Cosie said she does have a facilitator to be a touch person for her geometry class. 

“She motivates us to keep going because she knows it could be difficult for us. We’re already doing all virtual learning and then (in geometry) we don’t have a teacher,” Cosie said. 

To Cosie, even though this district support is helpful, it doesn’t replace the basic need of having an actual instructor teach the course — whether that be virtual or in person. 

“We need teachers. That’s the whole thing. We need teachers for every subject that we have so that we can better understand it instead of teaching ourselves. I’m not saying we can’t. I can understand most of the concepts, but I know some kids are different from me,” Cosie said.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.

Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.