As virtual education emerges as a popular way to teach students during a pandemic, concerns are being raised about high student-teacher ratios at the Janesville School District’s virtual school.

Janesville Education Association President Dave Groth shared teacher perceptions of a staff shortage at ARISE Virtual Academy at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

“There’s just concern about student levels on some of those (classes) as high as around 250 students right now per staff member,” Groth told the board. “There’s not enough hours in the day to be contacting, especially with video conferences, that many parents/students.”

However, district leaders say the staffing situation is stable.

Assistant Superintendent Scott Garner told The Gazette that ARISE is 98% staffed. The only unfilled positions are elective classes with one to two sections, and those will be staffed by next week, he said.

As of Thursday morning, ARISE’s enrollment stood at 3,097 full-time students and 786 hybrid students who are taking a blend of in-person and virtual classes.

By contrast, about 243 students attended the virtual school last year.

In an interview Thursday, Groth said he was only raising concerns he’s hearing from teachers—that the flood of new students driven to ARISE by the pandemic might be making the teaching workload difficult.

One factor Groth said he was unsure about was the role of paraprofessionals, the educators who help teachers with virtual teaching duties. He said ARISE classes have been much smaller in the past, so he didn’t know how paraprofessionals’ roles had changed this year.

“There’s so many things going on right now, and it’s just us trying to understand,” he said.

“We know there’s going to be a learning curve, but we just want to make sure things are going as smooth as they can.”

Garner said the district tries to limit teacher-student ratios at ARISE to a maximum of 200 students per teacher. Classes of that size are typical at the virtual school for core classes such as math and English, he said.

The only class that has 250 students at ARISE this fall is personal finance. It’s in high demand in the district and for open-enrolled students because it is a state requirement for graduation, Garner said.

For every 40 students in an ARISE class, the district adds a paraprofessional to assist the teacher. So for a class of 200 students, a teacher would have five paraprofessionals.

The personal finance class will have six paraprofessionals under the district’s policy. Garner said the district tries to keep paraprofessionals working with the same group of students within a class.

“Our job is to build relationships and create connections, and that helps us do that,” he said.

As of Wednesday, 33 district teachers had been transferred to ARISE, and an additional 29 teachers had been hired from outside the district to work at the school.

Those positions are considered “limited term,” meaning that they exist for the duration of time they’re needed because of higher enrollment, Garner said.

If COVID-19 and a larger enrollment at ARISE continue in the next school year, a number of teachers could return.

Some in-person teachers also are teaching a class at ARISE during their prep periods, which the district refers to as an overload. Teachers are asked, but not forced, to teach during prep periods, Garner said.

Teachers are typically scheduled to work six of the eight hours in a work day. Those working an overload work seven hours and are paid for the extra time.

Part of the staffing uncertainty that kicked off the school year stemmed from families who were still choosing their delivery method, district spokesman Patrick Gasper said.

“We went into the school year last week, and we still had roughly 900 families who hadn’t decided yet, and so we’re still trying to adjust (staff) based on that new information coming into this week and last,” he said.

Despite a few bumps and some staffing movement in the first two weeks, Garner said those at ARISE will see progress.

“This has been a crazy first part of the year, but trust in the system, and it will work,” he said.