Wake County families can begin applying Thursday to take online-only classes next school year if they don’t yet feel comfortable returning for in-person instruction.
The Wake County school board on Tuesday approved offering the Virtual Academy program again for the 2021-22 school year. The vote paves the way for the online registration period that will run from Thursday to May 2.
Admission is guaranteed if families register at wcpss.net over the next two weeks. Families can request a seat after May 2 but they may be turned down.
The Virtual Academy was begun for the current school year as an option for families who didn’t feel it was safe to attend in-person classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That concern still exists for some families because COVID-19 vaccines have not yet been approved for most students.
“We eagerly await the time when we can see all of our students in-person each and every day,” said Drew Cook, assistant superintendent for academics. “We do recognize however that some families may not be comfortable with in-person instruction as we begin the ‘21-22 school year.”
Fewer courses will be offered
Even though the Virtual Academy is returning, school officials warn that it will be different. One of the biggest changes is that not as many courses will be available.
Schools will offer core courses, including those required for graduation. Only select elective courses will be offered.
Magnet school students won’t be able to take some classes online.
Cook said they can’t offer some courses because they expect far fewer than the 77,000 Virtual Academy students who enrolled this school year.
While Wake could offer more online courses, Cook said it would mean asking teachers to simultaneously teach in-person and virtual students. Many teachers have to do concurrent teaching this school year.
“We have heard loud and clear from every stakeholder group, from teachers, from parents, from students, from board members, from principals, from district staff that we cannot have another school year where our in-person and virtual instruction is conjoined,” Cook said. “We are absolutely committed to separating the two.”
Another change is that Wake is warning families that students who don’t do the work at the Virtual Academy may be required to return to in-person instruction.
Families are being asked to carefully weigh whether the Virtual Academy is the right choice for them.
“It’s an option that will look quite different from this year’s virtual offering, and so if families are not sure that the Virtual Academy is right for them, we encourage them to consider attending school in-person,” said Edward McFarland, chief academic advancement officer.
Lack of vaccine for kids an issue
Clinical trials are underway to allow children as young as age 5 to get the COVID vaccine. The lack of an approved vaccine for children under age 16 is driving several parts of the Virtual Academy this fall.
Initially, school officials had recommended that next year’s Virtual Academy only serve grades 4-12 due to the challenges in providing online learning to younger students. But the lack of vaccine availability led to the district agreeing to make the program available to all students this fall.
Even though PreK-3 will still be served, the district says online instruction “is not the ideal learning environment for this age group.”
Wake is requiring families who sign up for the Virtual Academy to commit for the whole school year. But Wake says it will reassess the requirement if vaccination programs are expanded to include children of all ages.
School officials say the one-year commitment is needed, for now, to avoid students having to change teachers during the year. It would also reduce or eliminate sharing teachers with students attending in-person classes.
Wake also said it will reevaluate registration in the Virtual Academy if the COVID-19 pandemic surges again.
Daily instruction expected
Virtual Academy students would get about six hours a day of instruction. At least three hours a day will be live instruction.
The Virtual Academy will continue to be run as a program within each school. This means that students will remain assigned to their in-person school and follow that school’s calendar.
Virtual Academy students will be able to participate in their school’s co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, including athletics. But transportation won’t be provided.
The Virtual Academy won’t be be offered for students in the early colleges, leadership academies, alternative schools, Crossroads Flex High School and SCORE Academy. It also won’t be available for some students in intensive special-education programs.