With some students and teachers thriving in the online learning environment, some Lynchburg-area school divisions are exploring the future of virtual learning and what options they might provide students in the next school year and beyond.
When conceiving plans to reopen schools for the current school year, area school divisions launched online-only virtual academies or other remote options for families who did not feel comfortable sending their students to school for in-person learning because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, after seeing some benefits of virtual learning, school leaders are exploring options to continue offering online options to students in their divisions, even post-COVID-19.
Lynchburg City Schools’ most recent budget worksheets outline more than $1.1 million in possible Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds that could be used to grow and continue a virtual academy for students in the division next year. Students in LCS currently have the option to attend school in person two days per week through the division’s hybrid learning model, or remain in a remote-only environment.
As of Tuesday, nearly 39% of the division’s more than 7,500 students chose to continue with remote-only learning.
Amy Pugh, deputy superintendent for LCS, said while the division is seeing some students who are struggling online and still hopes to get students into the classroom for in- person learning on a full-time schedule, there also are some students and teachers who are thriving in the virtual environment.
“We want to continue to provide resources for them,” Pugh said. “In some form or another, LCS intends to have a virtual academy that continues post-COVID.”
There are benefits and drawbacks to virtual learning, said Holly Gould, chair of the elementary education department in the College of Education, Leadership Studies and Counseling at the University of Lynchburg.
While some students may thrive in an environment where they can create their own schedule and work at their own pace, others may suffer from a lack of social interaction, extracurricular opportunities and relationships that come from physically being in classrooms.
“If it were just about what students learned, if it were just about content, virtual learning might be the panacea,” Gould said. “But it’s not just about learning; there’s so much more that goes into school.”
Students who may have social anxiety or find an in-person classroom distracting, Gould said, might find a virtual environment better suits their learning needs.
On the other hand, she said, students who have more distractions at home, don’t have internet access or struggle with the lack of socialization that comes with online learning might benefit more from being in the classroom.
Pugh said LCS has a task force of about 10 teachers, staff members and administrators who are having initial conversations about an “LCS virtual academy.”
Pugh said the division hopes to be able to offer a virtual option to all students in the division, but, depending on funding and interest, the division may need to first pilot the academy for only high school grades or for middle and high school grades before expanding.
“Our intention is that it would be its own school within LCS and it would be staffed with teachers who are skilled at and want to continue to teach in a virtual-only environment,” Pugh said.
Pugh said the option may appeal to families of students with health concerns, students who are currently being homeschooled, or students who are self-motivated and learn better at their own pace.
An estimated $1.1 million in CARES funds in the 2021-22 fiscal year budget is allocated to hire an administrator, administrative assistant, school counselor and technology support staff for the remote academy. Pugh said the task force is looking at the sustainability of a remote academy and, in terms of funding, the division would need to be able to fund those positions in the future when CARES Act funding is no longer available.
Some teachers in the division have shared that they are enjoying the virtual environment and have discovered they are skilled at connecting with and teaching students online, Pugh said, so the division might be able to staff the remote academy with current LCS teachers.
Gould said teaching in a virtual environment makes it more difficult for teachers to connect with students and build relationships with them. Teachers are often the first to notice changes in a students mental health, Gould said, and a virtual environment may make that more difficult.
Gould said she has been a teacher for 30 years and is teaching students virtually this year, and she’s noticed that the bonding that happens between teachers and students in a virtual environment is different than when students are face-to-face with their teachers.
While it may be harder, a teacher who cares about students and wants to create those relationships will be able to do so in a virtual environment as well.
“Good teaching is good teaching,” Gould said. “If you are really trying to meet your students’ needs, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a virtual environment or an in-person environment.”
Currently, many teachers in LCS are serving both remote-only and hybrid students. Pugh said having a dedicated staff in place would alleviate some strain on teachers and allow the division to put the necessary supports in place to best serve students in a remote environment.
Clayton Stanley, assistant superintendent for instruction in Campbell County Public Schools, said administrators in the division are also seeing students who prefer virtual learning and teachers who are getting comfortable teaching in that environment.
CCPS is currently offering hybrid learning, with some in-person learning days and some remote learning days, or a remote-only option through the division’s virtual academy, Campbell County Online Learning Academy, which was formed this past fall.
Stanley said the division is seeing some learning loss in the hybrid and virtual learning environments and is looking at ways to combat that, but some students are finding success with virtual learning.
“Using technology to deliver instruction is here to stay,” Stanley said. “And that’s a good thing.”
Stanley said the division is planning to continue offering an online-only option for students who prefer it but is struggling to determine how many families would choose that option. With COVID-19 cases currently rising in Campbell County and the state, Stanley said more families may show interest in an online option now but might not be interested when cases drop.
“That’s the hard part,” he said. “Are we planning for 2,000 kids or are we preparing for 200 kids?”
Bedford County Public Schools and Amherst County Public Schools have already created remote-only learning academies, dubbed Bedford Connects Remote Learning and Amherst Remote Academy, respectively.
Audrey Bowyer, administrator for Bedford Connects, said the program currently has around 2,300 students enrolled in grades pre-kindergarten through 12. BCPS serves more than 9,000 students, so nearly 25% of the division’s students have opted for remote learning, and the rest are participating in hybrid learning with some in-person learning days.
While the choice for remote-only learning was first created to give families the choice to have their student stay home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Bowyer said many students are now choosing to attend Bedford Connects because of the flexibility it offers. Bowyer said the division has seen some homeschoolers return to BCPS because the virtual academy better suits their needs.
While no final decisions have been made regarding the future of Bedford Connects past this school year, Bowyer said the she and other administrators in the division are having conversations and anticipating the academy “is around to stay.”
Dana Norman, chief academic officer for Amherst County Public Schools, said Amherst is creating plans to continue its remote academy next year and beyond. Norman said many students in the division have found success in virtual learning and the division hopes to continue offering the opportunity to families.
“I don’t see Amherst moving away from innovations like this; allowing families the choice in how they attend school,” Norman said in an email.