Back to school

Gauger-Cobbs eight-grader Annabella Lee and Brookside Elementary fifth-grader Matthew Lee participate in online classes last week. The Christina School District plans to offer a families the option of sticking with virtual learning all year.

The Christina School District will offer some students a full year of remote instruction through its Virtual Academy, an initiative which families can opt into for the 2020-2021 school year. In the first 72 hours of enrollment, more than 1,000 families signed up.

The district surveyed more than half of its families over the summer and found that 39 percent would have concerns about returning to in-person instruction, even with state safety guidelines met and the governor’s blessing. Superintendent Dan Shelton explained that the Virtual Academy is an attempt to address those concerns.

“We had an outcry for this particular program for families that do not wish to come back this year,” Shelton said. “It’s our goal to provide as much and as many services as we can for all of our families.”

More than 400 students, parents and community members joined a virtual town hall meeting last week to discuss the Virtual Academy. A panel of administrators, including Shelton, Supervisor of Student Services Dana Crumlish, Chief Academic Officer Deirdra Aikens, Senior Director of Teaching & Learning Dean Ivory and Senior Director of Special Services Jeff Conkey, answered questions.

Classes are currently virtual, with plans to re-evaluate and begin phased reopening in mid-October. Students who opt for the Virtual Academy will remain enrolled in their feeder schools, and the transition to Virtual Academy classes will coincide with their classmates’ transitions to a hybrid or full reopening.

Administrators stressed that they hope to sync Virtual Academy and in-person schooling so that remote students can participate as fully as possible. Some advanced courses, related arts courses and even school sports will be accessible to Virtual Academy students through their traditional schools — although Shelton said he doesn’t expect much interest in playing in-person sports from students who plan to learn from home.

Aikens said the district would pursue creative options to keep virtual students engaged with live learning. Some classrooms will be outfitted with cameras, meaning that Virtual Academy class schedules will align with traditional school schedules. The district has also committed to providing every student with a device to access learning.

“We will be making every effort to make sure our programming continues to the best of our ability,” Aikens said.

Classes will be restructured as students transition to the next phase of reopening, meaning Virtual Academy students will likely meet in new groups with new teachers mid-semester. Virtual Academy teachers will be recruited from the district’s schools, and Aikens explained that teachers have already undergone training to prepare for virtual instruction.

“If you should lose that connection with your teacher, we are confident that you will build a new connection with your new teacher,” she said.

Shelton said the district is seeking a year-long commitment so that classes can remain as consistent as possible amid the unpredictable course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know it’s a tough decision. I apologize that we’re asking ahead of time, but we won’t be able to universally move back and forth,” he said. “Once we have staff assigned, we have staff assigned, and they need to be working with those students.”

Enrollment will close on Sept. 15, a deadline some parents have criticized as being too early to commit to a full year without knowing how effective online learning is for their children.

Ivory explained that after the initial enrollment period closes, the district will secure final commitments from interested families.

“When registration closes, we will have a much better understanding of where we are in terms of numbers with students and staff,” Ivory said. “At that point, we’re going to reach out to families and say, ‘We are able to offer this as a first-grade option for your family — are you still committed to the program?’”

Many wonder whether the Virtual Academy will be here to stay in following years, a possibility Shelton didn’t rule out. He said increased accessibility of online learning may be a long-term effect the pandemic has on education.

For the time being, though, he’s focused on the next few weeks, not the next few years.

Still, Shelton expressed concerns about the number of home schools that had been registered in the state in recent weeks. He asked families who are uncomfortable with the prospect of returning to consider the Virtual Academy as an option, adding that students currently attending private schools would become eligible after enrolling in their local CSD school.

“This could be a great option for those that want their child to be at home, but also want to take advantage of the resources from having a public education,” Shelton said. “In this case, instead of having to do it on your own, you’d have a certified teacher available there to help you. You’d have all the resources of the school district to help you.”

At the close of the meeting, there were more than 400 outstanding questions, which administrators said were mostly repeating those they had already answered. Ivory thanked the families and community members who joined the town hall, and said the district would have more communication with families to answer their questions.

“There’s a true desire and a need to move forward with the Virtual Academy,” he said. “We may not have all the answers all of the time. We will certainly work to find out an answer and certainly find a solution that is best for you and your family.”

Shelton said they would continue to have a dialogue on the issues that families brought up in their questions. He ended by thanking his team.

“You guys have done an amazing job really pulling off something special,” he said. “We are committed to making sure that we are doing what we can for our kids.”

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