Teachers in Lauderdale County schools participated last week in the system's first-ever virtual back-to-school inservice program.
Alabama school systems are required to have a teacher inservice program.
The inservice program for county schools has taken various forms in the past, ranging from guest speakers with breakout sessions to in-house speakers addressing the district's workforce.
Because a large facility is needed to accommodate all the district's employees, in recent years the employees have met at Highland Baptist Church in Florence.
But this year was different.
When teachers returned on Thursday, they met at their respective schools and participated in a virtual inservice made up of eight audio links.
Each person listened to the links covering topics such as a welcome by Superintendent Jon Hatton, payroll, insurance and benefits, secondary/elementary curriculum, special education, student services and the Lauderdale County Teachers Credit Union.
According to Hatton, the virtual inservice was designed to be a timesaver for teachers.
"Instead of having teachers from all the schools driving into Florence for this half-day inservice, we thought it would be a good opportunity to give teachers more time at their own school sites to prepare for the students to return," Hatton said.
Lauderdale County school students return Wednesday.
Hatton said the idea originated with the district's testing coordinator, Les Abston, who'd participated in similar virtual webinars at the state level.
The links consisted of PowerPoint programs with voice-overs by professionals in the individual areas within the school system.
Hatton said that by Friday afternoon, all the schools had participated in the virtual inservice, and Abston sent out surveys for teacher input.
Teachers were asked which format they preferred — face-to-face or virtual. Teachers also had the option of sharing their opinions on what they liked about the new format and what could be improved upon.
"I've done webinars through the State Department of Education and have found them to be a big time and money saver and just more efficient," Abston said. "I talked to people beforehand and many wanted to try it."
Hatton said of the system's 447 teachers, there were 353 responses. Of those, 90 percent said they preferred the virtual inservice.
He said all boxes were checked with the virtual program, and legal requirements met as it counted towards the district's state-required professional development.
Valerie Thigpen, guidance counselor for Waterloo School, the most outlying campus in the system, said that while she missed the camaraderie of all school personnel coming together, she appreciated the time savings, especially for the Waterloo teachers whose entire workday would have been taken with the traditional inservice.
"I do enjoy getting together (with other schools), and it's true that inservice is the only time we get to do that, but having that extra time to get our work done on our campuses and get ready for the students outweighs that luxury," she said.
Not all school personnel thought it was a good idea.
Kim Walker, a family and consumer science teacher at Lexington High School, said the poor audio links stripped teachers of much-needed collaboration time.
"It's exciting for teachers to come back after the summer and we look forward to networking that day and sharing ideas," Walker said. "We not only share ideas, but it's great motivation for teachers to get them excited about the school year. It's energizing."
Walker said the virtual format also does away with much-needed interaction between teachers and AEA representatives and vendors who attend annually.
"It's just a good way to have all these key people in one place," she said.
Hatton said improvements can be made to the presentation in the future, if the school system decides to continue with the virtual format.
"We can do more in the way of videos and just improve the delivery in general, but this was just a test run for us," he said.
There were separate inservice activities for staff and other support personnel, as well as for special education officials.