Southwest Virginia is setting a model for virtual learning — even after the COVID-19 pandemic

By: - April 26, 2021 12:01 am

(Courtesy of NBC12)

By the time coronavirus cases began surging across Virginia for the third time in less than a year, Keith Perrigan knew his teachers needed a break.

“I never dreamed last March that we would be into this April and still dealing with the pandemic,” said Perrigan, who serves as the superintendent of Bristol Public Schools. Bristol was one of only nine divisions across the state to begin the school year with full in-person instruction. But even now, about 25 percent of the district’s students are still opting for remote learning.

“As numbers continued to increase, it became very apparent that we were going to have to continue providing virtual instruction in the following year,” he said. For many school districts, that presented challenges on multiple fronts. Teachers were already juggling online classes with five days a week of face-to-face instruction with no end in sight. At the same time, districts were still losing students to homeschooling, private schools and virtual programs that had perfected their own models of online learning.

“They’ve been able to create curriculums that are very expansive,” Perrigan said. “Whereas in Bristol, we were just basically doing the best we can to provide the best we could.”

Now, the school district is uniting with 16 others in Southwest Virginia on a solution — one administrators think could be a model for the rest of the state. Under a proposal currently being considered by the Virginia Board of Education, Bristol would join three city and 13 county divisions to create a regional Virtual Academy for full-time remote instruction.

The concept is similar to governor’s schools — regional academies that serve gifted students from multiple neighboring districts. But in this case, the program would be open to the roughly 30 percent of students in Superintendent’s Region 7 (covering the southwestern corner of Virginia) who opted for online classes this school year.

Full-time coursework would be offered through three different vendors: Stride K12, Edgenuity, and Virtual Virginia, which is developed and run through the state’s Department of Education. Participating districts would pay a $10,000 administrative fee to cover the costs of operating the program and a per-pupil fee for the online curriculum. 

Most importantly, all three programs would hire their own teachers, who have the same licensing and credentialing requirements as any other state educator, according to Perrigan. The benefits, he said, are manifold. Districts can maintain a remote option — which is no longer a requirement for schools that open for in-person instruction — without having it compete with face-to-face learning. Teachers won’t have to juggle two modes of instruction. And local administrators are hoping they’ll lure back students who left their divisions over the course of the pandemic.

“We really had two main objectives,” Perrigan said. “One was to take that ‘living in both worlds’ workload off our teachers. But the other was to protect ourselves from future declines in enrollment.”

Richmond Public School staff distribute laptops to students at the beginning of the school year. (courtesy of NBC12)

For a significant part of the last school year, it was mostly small and rural districts balancing in-person instruction and remote classes. In early September, five of the nine school divisions to reopen fully in-person were in Southwest Virginia. From the beginning, Perrigan said administrators in the region shared concerns over broadband access and providing services to low-income students. 

But over the past three months, there’s been a statewide push to return students to the classroom. Under recent legislation from the Virginia General Assembly, schools are mandated to begin providing in-person learning by July 1. As a result, only a single division — Richmond City — remained predominantly remote as of April 19, according to VDOE data. Virtually every district in the state has plans to begin offering at least some face-to-face learning this week.

Some families, though, are still reluctant to send their children back to the classroom until they’re fully vaccinated. While both Pfizer and Moderna have launched clinical trials in children younger than 12, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn’t expected to approve the shots for that purpose until at least mid-autumn. When VDOE polled local divisions in early March, an average 29 percent of elementary schoolers were still choosing remote instruction. For high schoolers, it was 43.5 percent.

“For the most part, the families who are wanting to do it still have health concerns in their home,” Perrigan said of Bristol, where he anticipated at least 15 percent of students would remain virtual next school year. The same is true for districts across the state, which puts pressure on schools to preserve some kind of remote option.

A historic sign over State Street in Bristol, which serves as the Tennessee-Virginia border through downtown. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

That’s how Southwest Virginia’s proposal could become a statewide framework. For several months, regional administrators considered building a virtual academy all on their own — from designing the curriculum to hiring additional teachers. “Trying to provide remote instruction to all our students sometimes kept me up at night,” said Rob Graham, the superintendent of Radford City Schools.

But they quickly learned that virtual instruction is a multi-million dollar industry. Radford had already partnered with Stride to provide online classes for some of its students during the pandemic. When Graham pitched the idea of expanding to the entire region, the company was immediately receptive. Then he and Perrigan started getting even more emails from Virtual Virginia and other providers interested in joining the pilot.

“Once we started talking about this, everybody was coming over wanting to dance with us,” Perrigan said. “I bet we could have had 10 different partnerships.”

Virtual education isn’t an entirely new phenomenon in Virginia public schools. In the 2019-20 school year, a total of 6,606 students were taking at least one Virtual Virginia course, which can be used to supplement curriculum in local public schools. Two hundred and thirty-six were enrolled in the program full-time. The same year, nearly 2,500 students were enrolled full-time in Stride’s Virginia Virtual Academy program.

Those numbers increased significantly during the pandemic. A total of 10,320 students were enrolled in at least one Virtual Virginia course in the 2020-21 school year and 921 are attending full-time. For the Virginia Virtual Academy, full-time enrollment spiked to 7,650. But only a handful of local districts — Richmond, Radford, Patrick and King and Queen — participate in one or more programs. Only one district, King William, contracted with Edgenuity this school year.

In some cases, such as Virginia Virtual Academy, students from outside those divisions can enroll in the program. But they’re then transferred to the partnering district for attendance purposes. That’s because Stride collects 95 percent, per student, of the state funding based on “average daily membership” — an aggregate head count of students enrolled in the district.

Over the last year, both Bristol and Radford have lost students to other divisions as some families enrolled in online academies. It’s bad for the school districts, which then lose funding — an especially painful outcome for small and predominantly low-income divisions. Students also lose access to supplemental services offered through their home districts, such as counseling, school sports and free meal programs.

A Henrico schools worker hands out a meal. (Henrico County Public Schools)

The hope is that forming a regional online academy will encourage students to enroll in remote coursework through their local division. Graham said the partnership — and the decision to contract with multiple providers — also significantly reduced the per-pupil cost of online curriculum. Providers have a financial incentive to service Southwest Virginia, as well.

“What makes us attractive is that our local composite index is so low,” Perrigan said. “A district like Bristol, our locality takes care of 30 percent of our funding and the state takes care of 70 percent. Whereas in a Northern Virginia school, it might be exactly the opposite. So state aid for a student in Bristol may be $7,000, where it may be $2,000 in Northern Virginia.

Keeping an eye on students is another incentive for centralized virtual instruction. Under the region’s proposal, the academy would be governed by its own school board and managed by an executive director — former assistant principal Katlin Kazmi — who’s already been hired. Individual districts have the discretion to choose which students are eligible, but there’s already draft enrollment criteria, including a minimum GPA of 2.0 for high school students. Kazmi said she’ll be a liaison between providers and students, ensuring they’re meeting academic requirements and potentially returning them to the classroom if they’re not.

The state Board of Education still has to sign off on the formation of a new regional school board. But Perrigan said the districts plan to proceed regardless of whether that approval is granted. Virtual instruction has become a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the region is also thinking beyond the next school year. 

The academy’s memorandum of understanding requires local boards to sign up for at least two years. Even after school operations get back to normal, Perrigan said the model will remain appealing — allowing students to access classes and curriculum that wouldn’t have been available through their local schools.

“I would be very surprised if this doesn’t snowball and become bigger,” Graham added. “What I do know is that we’re getting a lot of attention and remote learning is not going anywhere.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.