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Virtual school expands to 9th & 10th grades

By ZOE HAGGARD - zhaggard@t-g.com
Posted 5/28/22

As fewer people take heed of COVID-19 and as more and more businesses return to in-person workplaces, the idea of a virtual school may appear unnecessary today. 

So why continue to have a …

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Virtual school expands to 9th & 10th grades

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As fewer people take heed of COVID-19 and as more and more businesses return to in-person workplaces, the idea of a virtual school may appear unnecessary today. 

So why continue to have a virtual school here in Bedford County? 

The Bedford County Schools put out a survey to get a feel for the community’s interest in continuing a virtual school. Results at one point show that out of 157 responses, nearly 80 percent said they were either very interested or maybe interested. Over 60 parents have asked for more information. 

“I think it’s important to keep the virtual school an option because of the choices it gives the families in Bedford County. Not all students learn the same way,” said Bedford County Virtual School principal Meredith Gilliland.  

BCVS holds grades 3rd through 8th and has 79 students enrolled, with around 50 in the middle school grades. Gilliland said if they were to expand the virtual school, 3rd grade it the youngest they would teach. Expanding to include high school age students would be more costly as they require subject-specific teachers with more certifications, according to Gilliand. 

But it’s a possibility to add several virtual classes to the high school level to add more class types and have access to a wide range of instructors. “I’ve received calls all year long from high school parents who have wanted this to be an option,” Gilliland said.  

Ultimately, the decision will be up to the school board and be required by the state to add a grade level each year.  

Communications director Carol Garrette added, “Clearly, the virtual school has been a success for a segment of our population.... It’s a bragging point, and we’re excited about that.”  

Positives 

Gilliland said some of the BCVS students and their families may still be concerned over catching the coronavirus and giving it a family member who has a co-morbidity. She said there’s a mix of students who wear masks and who don’t when they meet in person.  

Ultimately, virtual school gives options. 

“It's getting to know the students in their own environment, in their own way,” Gilliland said. 

She added that the virtual school allows for self-paced learning, which allows students to collaborate in differently.  

“I think that the use of technology in the classroom prepares students for jobs that haven't even been created yet,” Gilliland said. Though many have or are returning to work, some jobs have completely gone virtual. According to a 2022 Pew Research study, around six-in-ten U.S. workers who say their jobs can mainly be done from home are working from home all or most of the time. 

Gilliland said they can maximize their time since the logistics of moving students from one location to another in a school building is not needed. Students don’t have to pack their backpacks or walk to lunch. 

What about homeschooling? 

“I know that’s a great fit for some, but how that content is delivered by someone who is highly qualified, a certified teacher, in that subject area certainly helps support the students,” said Gilliland.  

“There’s a big difference in delivering learning to your own children versus doing it to a classroom. So, I do think that even though kids are learning at home, there is a separation between ‘now I'm at school’ and ‘now I'm at home,’” she added. That is, an online classroom still maintains a structure and a formality.  

How does it work? 

Many criticisms of virtual school, especially for young kids, point out the excessive amount of screen time.  

“We have the same requirements that all public schools have for physical activity,” Gilliland said—and even if it’s just a five minute ‘brain break’ or having that asynchronous component where after live instruction is delivered students can close their computers for independent work, helps. Teachers need that too, Gilliland added. 

“And as a former classroom teacher, one thing I was always concerned about was stamina. My students aren't used to sitting that long, like they are during testing. But that really hasn’t been an issue,” she said.  

Other critics will question the learning ability of students without the hands-on aid of a teacher who can track progress.  

Students are asked to use the school computers provided for them, which have all the necessary programs. Gilliland said communication with parents is key for tracking progress.  

“We do have some things in place to help students where attendance is not as good,” Gilliland explained. BCVS offers a “learning lab,” which allows students who get behind in work to come into BCVS’s central location at Cascade Middle with their laptop and work. Teachers are in the room with them.   

And, “as we expand in high school, we’re looking at using a program where parents can monitor the work students turn in and even look at the time students are logged in” Gilliland said. 

Some students with “high social anxiety” tend to learn better in non-classroom environments. “I think for our middle school students, the pressure to look a certain way and to be a certain way—in virtual school that’s not anything that is a factor in our learning environment...I think they feel protected and safe,” she said.  

Gilliland said they do want students to keep their computer cameras on, but the camera does not have to be pointed at their face.  

Does this cause them to stagnate? 

Non-virtual activities 

Students do get out of their virtual school world.  

For TCAP testing, students were required to be present at a physical location. A big concern with this in-person testing was how the kids were going to get there. “We have had such a great turnout...We really owe all the gratitude to the parents.” 

“It’s been great to see them spend time together. They’ve had time to play outside, to play games. They've eaten lunch and breakfast together every day. So, it’s great to see them have that social interaction,” said Gilliland.  

They also have field trips and various meet-and-greets. This is something they hope to push more next year, starting with a monthly gathering. “Talking with other virtual schools, that is something they make a priority and something as we move forward that we make a priority as well,” said Gilliland.   

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