As the pandemic waned and mitigation strategies receded, most students and teachers were ready to get back to a more normal routine.
But Eric Everett found a different routine that he says works better for him. Eric, an eighth grader in Newport News, has not returned to a traditional school environment since wrapping up elementary school at Kiln Creek in 2020.
This year, he’s enrolled at Newport News’ Virtual Learning Academy, a new option — born of the pandemic — that the school division began offering in 2021. School officials refer to it as a “modern approach to remote learning,” offering a hybrid model that provides flexibility as well as the chance to attend in-person classes once a week and participate in athletics and extracurricular programs at a student’s home school.
Students can attend courses at their home school if they are not offered at the virtual academy, such as advanced high school math offerings.
“We found that, due to the pandemic, we had to look at things differently, we had to look at education differently,” said school principal Chris Smith.
Smith said when the pandemic began, the division gave a Chromebook laptop to each student.
“We took that, and then we expanded upon that,” he said. “How can we make unique, engaging lessons with our students from a virtual setting?”
Smith stresses this is not “pandemic learning,” not least of all because everyone in the program wants to be in it. The program had 180 students enrolled during last school year. This year, after expanding to the early grades, the school enrolls about 500 students.
The model is slightly different at the different grades. Elementary students, whose parents have to sign an agreement stating they will be a “co-coach” with the teachers, attend Zoom classes four days a week — a session in the morning and a session in the afternoon. The fifth day is their in-person day. This creates the kind of structure that younger children often need.
For middle and high school students, there is more flexibility. Students attend one Zoom session a week for each subject, and can come in once a week for in-person instruction. They can also set up additional one-on-one Zoom sessions with teachers if needed. The rest of the instruction happens asynchronous, at a student’s own pace.
During their in-person days, students can get questions answered, or participate in activities such as science experiments. On a recent Tuesday morning, middle schoolers were participating in a range of activities, including building DNA models, testing water turbidity, doing a voting activity in a civics class and attending a counseling session.
Students and families have chosen the Virtual Learning Academy for various reasons, Smith said. Some are still uncomfortable in in-person settings. Some are immunocompromised or have family members who are immunocompromised. Some like the flexibility.
For Eric, part of the appeal was a lack of distraction.
“It’s easier,” he said. “It’s quieter.”
Eric, who tried the all-online Virtual Virginia program for a while, said he enjoyed this option more because he can come to school once a week.
“I can get help on stuff I need help on,” he said.
The Virtual Learning Academy is taught entirely by Newport News teachers. Some students, like Eric, enjoyed the online experience.
Art teacher Holly Prillaman has been in the classroom for 18 years. Prillaman said surprisingly, she loved remote teaching during the pandemic. Even after returning to the classroom, she continued to use Canvas, the online learning management system that many schools started using during the pandemic. She said putting assignments on Canvas allowed her students to continue working at their own pace. When Prillaman got the chance to return to remote teaching at the Virtual Learning Academy, she took it.
“You get to a point sometimes, you’ve been doing something for a while you just wanted to do something different,” she said.
Daniel Craig, a math teacher at the school, also was drawn to online teaching. Craig, who taught for years in Pennsylvania before moving into central administration at a different Virginia district, remembers wishing he was in the classroom when the pandemic began.
“I remember me and my wife talking a couple of times, and I was like ‘Man, I wish I was teaching right now, I’d be really good at this,’” Craig said. He’d always loved technology and trying to utilize it in the classroom.
He said the hybrid model at the Virtual Learning Academy is working well, and he expects more schools to replicate it.
“Students can get as much as they want out of it,” Craig said.
“I’ve had students tell me that they are more connected to their virtual teachers than they were ever with a teacher in a building, which is really cool in my eyes,” he said.
School officials also say they’ve noticed fewer discipline issues, because students are generally more eager and excited to be at school, since they’re only there for about three hours a week.
Above all, the flexibility has been the biggest draw for families. Smith said among their students are a gymnast who trains multiple hours each day, a student who is attending culinary school, and many high school students who work full-time jobs to help support their families.
The school gives them the opportunity to have a “full” high school experience, and not have to turn to, for example, a GED program. The biggest challenge for the program so far, Smith says, has been working out logistics, such as coordinating transportation for students on different days and times, as needed.
Smith has been in education for 32 years. He said the pandemic has changed everything, some of it for the better.
“Education will never be the same,” he said.
Nour Habib, email@example.com