Wake may not let some virtual students return for in-person classes next semester

·3 min read

Some Wake County Virtual Academy students might not be able to return to in-person classes next semester, even though a COVID-19 vaccine could become available soon for younger children.

The Wake County school system had previously told Virtual Academy families that they’d consider letting them return for in-person classes in the spring semester if COVID vaccines for younger children became widely available.

But school administrators say that allowing large numbers of virtual students to return mid-year would force schools to make major changes that would impact existing in-person students.

“A significant change in the structure of the Virtual Academy in the spring semester does inherently have the potential to disrupt the learning experience for the 94% or so of Wake County Public School System students attending in-person instruction in the second semester,” Drew Cook, assistant superintendent of academics, told the school board’s student achievement committee on Monday.

Cook said administrators will work in the next few weeks on how to balance handling requests from Virtual Academy students to return to in-person classes with how it will impact the schedules of existing in-person students.

Year-long commitment required for virtual students

Wake established the Virtual Academy last school year to provide an all online option for families who didn’t feel comfortable with attending in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic.

At its high point, more than 80,000 students, or more the majority of the district’s students, were enrolled in the Virtual Academy.

Enrollment in the Virtual Academy is down to 10,100 students this school year. School board member Jim Martin noted that the Virtual Academy is a “life and death issue” for families of immuno-compromised children.

Families who chose the Virtual Academy over in-person classes were required to commit to the program for the entire school year. School officials said this year-long commitment was needed to allow schools to build their class schedules and to assign teachers.

But Wake had said it would reassess that year-long commitment for the spring semester depending on what happened with COVID vaccine availability.

Pace of vaccine availability too slow

The FDA could soon approve Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. Vaccinations could begin in November for children in that age range.

But Cook said the timeline for COVID vaccine availability isn’t moving fasting enough for families and schools making plans for next semester.

Wake didn’t guarantee that Virtual Academies families would be allowed to return for the spring semester. But Cook said that if Wake makes that promise now and large numbers of families do return “there would be significant consequences and potentially negative impact and disruption to the other 94 plus percent of students that are currently attending in person.”

For instance, Cook said that a second-grade student who is now attending in-person classes could get a new teacher mid-year to accommodate Virtual Academy students who’d be returning on campus.

Any changes in schedules and teacher assignments are coming at a time when Wake and school districts nationally are dealing with staffing shortages.

Returning Virtual Academy students would also likely get new teachers mid-year. There could be other issues such as:

Virtual Academy high school students attending A/B schedules where they take a different classes on alternating days may not be able to get the same courses if they return in-person.

Virtual Academy year-round students who are now all attending track 4 might have to switch to a different track if they return to campus.

Cook said that they likely won’t know how many Virtual Academy families want to return until COVID vaccinations begin for ages 5 to 11. But Cook said that some of those families might choose to stay the whole year anyway to avoid the changes that would be required if they return to in-person classes.

“It may be that we don’t see the large numbers that we think could say I want to come out,’” Cook said.

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