McCORMICK — The county School District has adopted a novel approach to addressing its critical shortage of teachers.

The nationwide problem is so acute in the small, predominantly rural district that some of its classes do not have certified teachers. The solution? Online learning.

The district high school and middle school offers courses through VirtualSC, a program of the state Department of Education, and Odysseyware, a private company.

“We can’t just say well, I don’t have a teacher, we aren’t going to teach it,” interim superintendent Betty Bagley said. “There’s a lot of positive in (online learning) that sometimes gets lost in the interpretation of it. I think people will be impressed with what we’re trying to do when we don’t have the teachers we need.”

Several teachers at McCormick High School said an advantage of virtual learning is that students are able to move at their own pace. It also allows them to do their work outside of the classroom.

For those reasons, Tevin Beard and Troy Beasley, both seniors, said they prefer virtual learning. Because students learn at different speeds, those who get ahead can help those who have fallen behind. Ultimately, “everyone is staying on track with each other,” Beard said.

Principal Steven English said this is not the first time the school has used online learning to compensate for a lack of teachers. They tried it a couple of years ago, he said, but it did not work out.

Students were falling behind because he thought having one proctor in the classroom would be enough.

“We thought we were doing well by our kids,” English said. “We thought that should be enough, but it wasn’t.”

He has learned from the experience. In a recent Algebra 1 class, there were three proctors, including elementary school principal Nynita Paul, who used to teach math at the high school and comes to help as time allows. Even people from the community have volunteered as proctors. “That has been a lifesaver,” English said.

Paul said the students have been grouped by the amount of support they need and that she spends time with the least motivated students.

Proctor Nadine Freedman said it’s been a challenge working with the students because “They’re so used to having an actual teacher in front of them.”

Courtney Lyles was a last-minute hire at the high school. Had she not come on board, the school would not have had a history teacher.

Lyles classes still include online courses. She said students have to be independent in order to do well in those classes. Although her students struggled at first, their grades have been improving. When they saw their first batch of grades, they realized they would have to put in more effort or fail the course, she said.

Bagley and high school principal, Steven English, said they are pleased with the rigor of the courses offered through VirtualSC and Odysseyware.

“I think sometimes teachers think we have to go down to (students’) level,” English said. “Odysseyware doesn’t do that.”

Michael Johnson, who has been teaching math for 19 years – seven of them at McCormick High School – said he’s not a “‘tech is the savior of the world’ type-guy.”

“We don’t have the data to say everything is going to be great,” he continued. But he thinks it’s promising. In traditional teaching, “very often you see kids that get quiet and drowsy. Seldom do kids put their heads on the desk now. That in itself is an accomplishment.”

English agrees it’s too early to say whether the district’s use of online learning has been working.

“I’m not going to tell you it’s been a success until I see EOC scores,” English said, referring to the statewide End-of-Course Exam Program.

One benefit he can already attest to, however, is the number of disciplinary incidents has plummeted.

“It’s hard to argue with a virtual teacher,” he said, laughing.

Nevertheless, English said he would prefer having certified teachers in every classroom.

“If I could wave the magic wand, I’d love to have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom,” Bagley said. “But in our situation nationally, statewide and in our county, we don’t have that everywhere.”

Contact staff writer Aleks Gilbert at 864-943-5644.