Chatham County Schools has extended its deadline for K-8 applications to its standalone virtual academy for next year, and will now accept students through July 30.
The deadline for high schoolers was June 15. At the end of June, about 155 students signed up for the standalone academy, CCS’s Amanda Hartness told the News + Record. Now, that number is still hovering around 150 students, she said.
Last year, more than 2,000 CCS students — about 25% of the system’s enrollment — opted into Virtual Academy, a remote-only option mandated by the state to allow students to continue learning online even as schools resumed in-person learning. Though not required by the state this year, Hartness said offering a learning option all families feel comfortable with is important.
“As we think about services post pandemic, we have to think about the opportunities we provide for students and families,” said Hartness, who is the district’s assistant superintendent of academic services and instructional support. “We want our students and families to have as many options as possible.”
The academy will require a semester-long commitment and will not provide a paper packet option for students like it did last year, claiming its “almost impossible to provide quality instruction” through them. (To sign up or learn more about the program, visit the district's google sign-up.)
CCS is using part of its COVID-19 relief funds to fund the standalone virtual academy K-12 program, paying for district-wide virtual academy positions: six teachers, two instructional assistants and one enhancement staffer. Previously, the district said teachers and staff teaching students in-person and those opting to learn virtually was a big source of burnout last year.
The standalone academy will be housed at two schools: K-8 at Bennett School and high school at Chatham Central, which has had a virtual academy for the last four years. Teachers will be hired for the virtual classes, but the principal at Bennett will oversee the program.
“It’ll be different in that different schools aren’t having to piece this together, I’ll have a staff specifically dedicated to the Virtual Academy,” said Bennett Principal Carla Neal. “So I’m in the process right now of hiring teachers. We have a great new virtual curriculum coach that I’m really excited about, and will operate this kind of as two schools within a school, but as a separate entity, so we can give all of our energy and attention to virtual learning. I’m really excited about that part.”
Last year, there were mixed feelings among families regarding asynchronous learning — learning done on your own time, rather than at a set time. Some families liked the option, saying it provided more flexibility for students, while others thought the lack of structure was harmful to learning.
Next year’s virtual academy will have synchronous and asynchronous components, Neal said, with about two hours every school day set aside for direct instruction with teachers.
“It wouldn’t be fair to say that your kid’s going to be logged onto a computer for five hours, nor would that be best for students,” she said. “That’s not age appropriate. That’s just not good learning. It’s not good for your health.”
While some families indicated interest in the virtual academy due to remaining COVID-19 concerns, Neal said most were interested due to the flexibility provided to students. Research has also shown that some students — particularly LGBTQ students and students of color — virtual learning offered reprieve from school environments that often felt stressful or unsafe.
About 20% of families expressed interest in a virtual-only option in a district survey last semester; fewer students ended up signing up. At this time, Hartness said the program is definitely worth having, though moving forward, she said the district will have to think about “the fiscal viability of the program,” using online services if student registration numbers don’t warrant a full staff.
Karla Eanes, principal at Chatham Central, said the virtual academy there was originally started as a partnership with homeschool groups and has since expanded to students looking to take online courses. The academy is an opportunity to partner with the wider community, she said.
“We saw this as a need before COVID even hit. … The fact that we saw that need early in the game, I think those reasons are still very valid and real reasons,” Eanes said. “I think COVID taught us that there are some students who actually, contrary to popular belief, really thrived in this environment. I think that students have learned I don’t need to sit in a building every day, all day long for six, seven hours to learn. And I think this honors that.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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