virtual learning

With the advent of the Coronavirus and the pandemic that came with it, Americans at large got a crash course in virtual learning. Online courses are nothing new, but with everyone hunkering down to avoid illness, virtual learning options suddenly took front and center stage. At last month’s regular School Board meeting for Westmoreland County, Deputy Superintendent Kathy Rice spoke at length on a particular online learning program.

A program from the Virginia Department of Education, Virtual Virginia is designed to offer online courses and digital content to schools, students, and teachers all over the Commonwealth. Ever since the Pandemic started, it has been expanding its offerings.

Ms. Rice went over four main programs in Virtual Virginia, starting with what was called the Complementary Program, which deals with online Advanced Placement (AP), elective, world language, and core courses that are taught by educators in Virginia.

“This is the one people are most familiar with,” Ms. Rice explained, “It’s been around the longest.”

The Complementary Program is open to middle and high school students that meet the prerequisites and have the school’s approval. They enroll through the school counselor, and each school has 15 enrollment slots per course that are free of fees. Beyond those 15, the division has to pay $350 per student per course.

Next up is Outreach, which deals in subject-area courses and resources available on the Canvas, and deals primarily in credit recovery courses for middle and high school students in English, History, Math, and Science. Outreach especially came into its own around the time of the pandemic, as student grades nationwide took a nosedive as all of the issues with virtual learning were sorted out. There are also resources at the middle and high school level for computer science, fine arts, and plenty more, such as STEM for grades K-5.

“Those are all available, free of charge, for our teachers,” Ms. Rice continued, “There is no enrollment involved, we can access all of that content through the Virtual Virginia Commons. We access it through our Canvas platform, which is provided free of charge by Virtual Virginia.”

The last subject of the presentation lay in the full-time Virtual Virginia Program, and is a completely new addition.

“Virtual Virginia is allowing us to enroll students full-time now in either the K-5 Elementary program or the 6-12 Secondary,” she stated, “The key facts about this one is school divisions choose whether or not to offer full-time enrollment to students.”

Westmoreland County Public Schools is one of the divisions that have decided to make this available to its students. Those that enroll full time in Virtual Virginia will remain affiliated with the schools in the division. While enrollment for the fall semester has already closed, the spring semester will remain open for enrollment until December 15.

At the K-5 level, students can take everything from math, reading, and language arts to science, social studies, and STEM, but the division has to pay an enrollment fee of $3,600 per student. The cost per student in the grade 6-12 range is drastically lower, clocking in at the division having to pony up $350 for each student enrolled.

Both groups of students follow the Virtual Virginia calendar, starting on the 10th or 24th of August. The students are taught by Virtual Virginia teachers, and move through the course material at the pace of their cohort. The enrolling school remains responsible for all student services.

“What this means is students are provided with the core content by Virtual Virginia, but the school division is still responsible the student in every other way” Ms. Rice explained, “So any special education services, English learner services, and student counseling services and such are all still our responsibility. We also provide the technology, such as an internet hotspot, just as we would for any student that is attending in person.”

School divisions establish their own criteria for what students get to enroll, and in Westmoreland County’s case, the criteria include performance in a virtual environment.

“The reason we did that was not to keep students out of full-time,” Rice continued, “But it is our job to make sure our students can be successful in any learning environment we offer them. So if a student demonstrated they could be successful in an online platform, then those are the students who are able to apply for full-time Virtual Virginia.”

It goes without saying that a student’s parent also needs to be on-hand to provide support at home, as well as make sure the students are actually doing their work rather than goofing around. Presently, there are a total of 17 elementary students enrolled from Westmoreland County, 13 middle schoolers, and 9 high schoolers.