More than 540 students in the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools — roughly 11% of the district’s total enrollment in grades K-12 — have signed up to learn virtually instead of in the classroom because of COVID-19 concerns.

In a related development, the ECPPS district has received 16 applications for the 25 virtual teaching positions it’s created to accommodate students choosing to learn virtually. Of that number, seven have expressed interest in teaching in the elementary grades, ECPPS spokeswoman Tammy Sawyer said Thursday.

ECPPS’ efforts to recruit more bus drivers, meanwhile, appears to be doing less well, mirroring trends in school districts statewide. Sawyer said ECPPS has hired one new driver since July. That’s despite the ECPPS Board of Education’s decision last month to raise bus driver pay to a minimum of $15 an hour and award both new and existing drivers a $1,000 bonus.

Sawyer said ECPPS needs 64 buses “to run daily to provide efficient transportation services.” The district currently has 49 drivers, she said.

Sawyer said last week the district initially received 652 student requests to learn virtually. However, that figure included duplicate requests and “others that are no longer in the count,” she said Thursday.

“We have a total of 543 requests for the extended virtual learning option,” Sawyer said.

The Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Board of Education voted last month to offer a virtual option to students, citing parental concerns about rising COVID-19 case counts in Pasquotank County because of the delta variant. Initially, eligibility was limited to students with either a documented medical condition that puts them at higher risk of serious illness if they contract the virus or those living with someone with such a condition.

The district received 184 applications for the virtual learning option prior to the start of school on Aug. 23. However, school principals accepted only 59 applicants based on the criteria of a documented medical condition. Because the district agreed to leave enrollment open, however, the number increased to 95 by the time the school board met earlier this month.

At that meeting, the board, again citing rising COVID-19 cases and a recent change to state law, approved interim Superintendent Eddie Ingram’s recommendation to allow any student to choose the virtual option, provided they signed up by Friday, Sept. 10. The change to state law was a provision in a larger bill — Senate Bill 654 — allowing school districts to provide virtual instruction to any student if their parent or guardian has consented to it.

The ECPPS school board set no cap on the number of students allowed to choose the virtual option but did say students who signed up wouldn’t be permitted to switch to in-person learning until at least after the first semester.

Sawyer provided a breakdown Thursday of the 543 students who signed up for virtual learning. The largest percentage continued to be elementary-grade students: 230. The second-largest group were high school students: 171. One-hundred forty-two middle school students also signed up.

When the school year began, school officials said they had identified current teachers willing to oversee virtual learning for the middle and high school students who had been approved but were still seeking three teachers to provide virtual instruction for approved students in the elementary grades. To ensure no teacher was simultaneously teaching virtually and in person, the teachers instructing middle and high school students virtually were to do so during their planning periods or after hours.

To accommodate the larger number of students expected to sign up for virtual learning once the medical documentation requirement was lifted, the school board also agreed this month to Ingram’s recommendation to hire up to 25 additional teachers whose assignment would be virtual learners.

Sawyer said last week the district had received 12 applications from teachers who’ve expressed a desire to teach virtually. As of Thursday, that number had grown to 16, seven of whom have “expressed interest” in teaching elementary-grade students, she said.

Meanwhile, the district’s reported COVID-19 cases continue to rise. As of Friday, the school district had reported 124 student and staff COVID-19 cases, including 13 this week. This week was first time in six weeks that the district’s COVID-19 cases didn’t increase.

The Board of Education is expected to get an update on virtual learning during its committee meetings on Monday at 5 p.m. The public can attend in person at the multi-purpose room at Central Elementary School or watch the meeting online at Face coverings are required for those attending in person.