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With deadline approaching, families face choice on Guilford County Schools' virtual academies

With deadline approaching, families face choice on Guilford County Schools' virtual academies

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GREENSBORO — LaTashia Moore has one son with asthma and one that's happy to learn from home. So she enrolled both in one of Guilford County Schools' new virtual academies. 

Her children are among the nearly 6,700 students who have signed up to take all their classes online for a semester or more through the district.

That includes about 2,700 enrolled in the new K-5 virtual elementary, 1,700 in the virtual middle school, and about 2,300 students taking full schedules of virtual courses while still enrolled in their regular high schools.

While Guilford County Schools is conducting all of its classes remotely for at least the first nine weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, students in the virtual programs will continue to work remotely when the district goes back to in-person classes.

Families must decided by Sept. 15 whether to join or transfer out of these virtual options. Either they go with their regular schools and possibly return to in-person learning before Christmas, or they can lock in "virtual" learning for at least a semester. 

The virtual academies are offering flexibility in online learning for families. However, their rapid launch also created issues such as some larger class sizes, a need to reassign some educators to help cover classes, and delays in matching students with teachers.  

District leaders sought the state's permission to open the virtual academies this summer while still uncertain of state plans about reopening.

They were looking for a way to hang on to families unwilling to send their children into buildings due to COVID-19, and thus avoid losing per-pupil funding, which could have forced major cuts to district services and perhaps even school closings. 

When registration for these virtual options first opened in mid-July, families had limited information to make their choices. Now, with classes underway, a sharper picture is emerging of how virtual learning is shaping up for students at various grade levels. 

High school 

Guilford County Schools is offering guaranteed all-virtual course schedules through its regular high schools.

Initially, the district planned for high school students to take courses with one of its new virtual academies, Guilford eLearning University Prep. 

Chief Academic Officer Whitney Oakley said they later decided that made less sense after thinking about the large array of virtual courses high school students could already sign up for through their regular schools, even before the pandemic. 

High school students already were able to take courses with the Raleigh-based North Carolina Virtual Public School or the Seattle-based Apex Learning Virtual School.  

According to information on the district's website, these courses are asynchronous, meaning instruction is recorded, not live.  

Oakley said several district high schools also offer some virtual courses taught by their teachers.

They prefer to keep students with district teachers. So whenever enough students were looking for a particular class at one district high school to fill a classroom, they assigned a teacher from their regular school to teach them virtually for the whole course. 

Southern High School Principal Brian Muller said nearly 90 of his 1,046 students are enrolled in fully virtual course loads. 

Those students are taking classes through the North Carolina or Apex virtual schools. He does not have any teachers assigned to virtual learning, although he said it's possible that some might be teaching courses for the N.C. Virtual Public School in their spare time outside of school. 

While not every course is available virtually, Muller said his school has been easily able to fill students' schedules based on what they need. 

"I would say students and parents that have requested that feel more comfortable as things stand now with COVID," he said. "It's been a great tool during this pandemic."

Middle school 

Moore, who is also a student, is home during the day supervising her sixth and eighth grade sons as well as a friend of the family who is in seventh grade. 

That child is doing regular remote learning, while her sons are doing the virtual academy, so Moore is getting a side-by-side comparison. 

Moore said she sees the virtual academy as offering more flexibility. For example, her sons have been asked to turn in work on a weekly basis, while the friend's work appeared to be daily. 

However, Moore said the friend who is involved in remote learning had his class schedule on the first day of school on Aug. 17, while her children didn't see theirs until a little over a week ago.  

Like other students doing virtual or regular remote learning across the district, her students have been taking part in pre-recorded lessons for the first few weeks of school. She told them this is the sort of thing that comes with creating a new school. 

"I’m not fussing; I’m not fighting," she said. "I’m really patient about it." 

She praised the virtual middle school's principal, Tanicka Robeson, and her staff for being quick to respond if she's needed help with an issue, such as changing an error in one of her son's schedules. 

In an email, Robeson said the University Prep virtual academy is built to let students learn at their own pace and to track their own progress, while also getting constant feedback and check-ins from teachers.

Students, she said, don't have to sit at a computer for hours at a time throughout each day. They will see a mix of whole-class, smaller-group, one-on-one, and even "on-demand" lessons. Further, she said, it will be normal for teachers and students to communicate outside the normal school day and school hours. 

She said the school is working on ways to help students to meet each other in virtual social activities, clubs, events and so forth. They hope to help students get "digital mindsets" in preparation for future college, career and life experiences. 

Elementary school 

With about 2,700 students, the elementary virtual academy is now the largest school in the district. 

Principal Lisa Jordan said she was excited when the district asked her if she would be willing to open a virtual academy. She had been feeling that virtual learning might play an important role in the future of education.

"I was just looking forward to a new experience, because I think after you've been somewhere for a while you need a new challenge, and I felt like this would be a great challenge for me, a great opportunity," Jordan said. 

Bringing teachers on board fast enough for the school's ballooning enrollment has been an immediate challenge, not just for Jordan, but also for the district as a whole.  

In an email Friday, Oakley, the district's chief academic officer, said the district had placed nine curriculum facilitators with elementary teaching licenses from across the district in teaching positions at the K-5 learning academy while final teacher vacancies are being filled.  

Under normal circumstances, curriculum facilitators are experienced teachers who offer guidance and support other teachers in a school, rather than teaching in their own classrooms. 

Oakley said this is intended as a temporary move, although it can become permanent if a facilitator requests it.

The district also is asking the school board to seek a state waiver for class size in the school's kindergarten through third grade classes. The waiver application on the agenda for Tuesday's school board meeting mentions classrooms of 30 students in grades K-3 at the virtual academy. 

State law, Oakley said, caps K-3 class sizes at one teacher per 21 students. If a school has an unanticipated enrollment of greater than 2 percentage points, the school may request a waiver. With its high demand, the K-5 virtual school met these criteria, she said. 

The most recent enrollment number for the school shared by the district Friday is actually down from the more than 3,000 students Jordan mentioned in an interview a couple of weeks ago. And Oakley believes not all students who enrolled will actually attend. She said that some families, including a number from charter schools, completed the registration process but have not yet attended the virtual academies.

"We are continuing to reach out to these families," she wrote.

The work of trying to open a new school has meant long hours for Jordan, but ironically, she feels there is more opportunity to be a part of her own children's education.  

"I just don’t think brick and mortar schedules work for a lot of families — and again not just because of the pandemic," she said. There can be the perception, she said, that some parents are not involved in their children's schooling, but it is just that their work schedules conflict. 

The beauty of the virtual environment, she said, includes opportunity to do some things outside the normal school day.

"I’m just going to tell you: I’m one of those parents," she said. "My children are going to be a part of the virtual school, and I can be more involved with their education."

Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.​

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