Exhausting as many resources as possible for a school year that could be another one for the record books, at least 100 of Virginia’s 132 school systems — including several in the Richmond area — are leaning on a state-sponsored virtual education program for help in alleviating some of the need for virtual seats for the 2021-22 school year.
More than 18,000 public school students — or about 1.5% of all of Virginia’s 1.25 million students — are projected to be enrolled this school year in Virtual Virginia, a 15-year-old tuition-based program sponsored by the Virginia Department of Education that offers full-time and part-time virtual learning in all grade levels.
The total number of participating full- and part-time Virtual Virginia students has doubled from just two years ago, when about 9,000 students participated, said VDOE spokesperson Charles Pyle, and the biggest change in membership comes with full-time learners.
Of this year’s 18,000, about 7,600 will be full-time students — a 1,740% increase from just two years ago when there were just 413 full-time students statewide.
The program is proving to be a lifeline for school systems that have already filled their own online programs and schools, but still have long waiting lists for virtual learning, Pyle said. Virtual Virginia is separate from Richmond-area school systems’ online schools, which are enrolling more than 6,000 students for the 2021-22 school year.
“Given what’s happening with the delta variant, as things have developed” over the summer, Pyle said, “we’ve had 100 school divisions that have requested additional seats” from Virtual Virginia.
He added. “We have to work with the school divisions to meet this demand.”
Virtual Virginia works like this: Pre-pandemic, the program was used mainly by middle and high schools to provide world language, Advanced Placement and other courses when individual schools didn’t offer them, either because schools didn’t have the staff to teach them or there weren’t enough students to justify offering the class.
If a middle or high school student needed a world language class, for example, and couldn’t take it at their home school, the school could ask for help from Virtual Virginia. If granted, students who needed that world language class would be plugged into a virtual class with other students from other school divisions who also needed that class. Among the most popular classes are geometry, economics and personal finance and American sign language.
Virtual Virginia provides the instructional programming and the teachers, and the teachers can set up their own schedules, which means some classes could be held outside normal school hours.
In 2021, however, Virtual Virginia has expanded to include elementary instruction so more K-12 students this year will have a full school day provided by Virtual Virginia. These students will remain tied to their home schools and be counted in their schools’ enrollment.
For public school students, Virtual Virginia spaces are given out on a first-come, first-served basis to school divisions that request them, Pyle said.
There’s not an unlimited number of spaces, he explained, because even though the classes are virtual, enrollment still follows Virginia’s educational standards of quality, which dictate class sizes that range from 21 to 35 students this year, depending on grade levels.
Yearly tuition ranges from $2,650 to $4,550 per public school student, based on grade level, and school systems pick up the tab for their own students.
On the other hand, home-schooled and private school students may also take Virtual Virginia classes, but they pay for those on their own and parents must reach out to Virtual Virginia for enrollment. Tuition for home-schooled and private school students is $2,750 to $5,500 per student. There are currently about 280 non-public school students using Virtual Virginia.
Brian Mott, Virtual Virginia executive director, said the program was equipped to deal with this year’s need, thanks in part to contingency plans they created this past spring that involved interviewing more teachers than they felt they needed for the fall and having them ready to go if more schools than expected asked for help.
That plan paid off, he said. While Virtual Virginia staffs its programs in May for the following school year, this year, Mott said, he knew that some school divisions were still asking for virtual learning requests into July and that enrollment numbers could be in flux for longer than expected.
Mott said everything was ready to go until about the end of July, when an unexpected uptick in virtual learning interest resurfaced statewide, likely in response to state mask mandates and increasing COVID-19 cases that caused parents to rethink their children’s plans.
But Mott said that because of the contingency plans, they had more teachers ready and therefore were able to support and grant the requests from school divisions even as late as Aug. 30.
“It became very evident in the last week of July that there was going to be the need to add more students,” Mott said, noting that in recent weeks, as Virtual Virginia spaces have been granted to school systems, the program continues to prioritize for three groups of students: those who have medical conditions that require them to learn remotely, the students of military families, and those students who may have transferred to a new school division after mid-July and would have likely missed local deadlines for virtual learning.
“We dialed things up a bit,” Mott said, adding that strong recruiting efforts in early summer “ended up paying off in the long run.”
Locally, some school divisions are taking as many seats as they can get.
As the academic year loomed, Henrico County school officials watched throughout August as the number of students on their virtual learning waiting list rose sharply — from 364 to 3,035. Henrico’s online school, called the Henrico Virtual Academy, was well past its May deadline and was already full at 1,519 students. Yet Henrico educators wanted to know just how many others were still interested in virtual learning, so they reopened a waiting list on Aug. 23.
Faced with the influx, they reached out to Virtual Virginia and were granted 543 seats for elementary school students, said Henrico schools spokesperson Andy Jenks. Last week, he said, Henrico was granted another 90 seats for secondary students, bringing the total number of Virtual Virginia seats to 898.
Though the virtual seats help, there are still more than 2,300 students on the virtual waiting list, Jenks said, which means they’re in schools unless a space comes available or they leave the school division in favor of home schooling or private schools. Parents of eligible students for Virtual Virginia seats were notified beginning Aug. 30, he said, and notifications continued last week.
Henrico has just about 48,000 students returning to buildings this year.
“Once our numbers started increasing like that” late in the summer, Jenks said, “we began to look at ways to serve as many of those students as possible.”
Neighboring Richmond is also taking advantage of more virtual learning bandwidth.
Richmond is projected to enroll nearly 2,000 Virtual Virginia students this school year, with half in pre-K through fifth grade, and the other half secondary students. That’s in addition to the 2,000 students enrolled in Richmond’s online program, called the Richmond Virtual Academy. About 21,000 students will be in-person.
“We’ve never used it like this before,” said Richmond schools Chief of Staff Michelle Hudacsko, referring to Virtual Virginia’s full-time capacities this year, “but this is meeting an absolutely tremendous need.” She said the system received 150 seats before school started that allowed her to clear the waiting list for now.
Hanover County has about 475 students in its Online School this year and about 300 are on the waiting list.
Hanover has 61 Virtual Virginia students, though none are full time, which means they’re all taking just one or two classes. More than 16,000 are back in Hanover school buildings.
In Chesterfield County, fewer than 10 are Virtual Virginia students, said schools spokesman Shawn Smith, and all of them are part-time students just taking one or two classes.
Smith said the school system will rely on its own online programs this year — the Virtual Learning Academy that’s serving about 1,800 elementary and middle school students, and CCPSOnline, for high school students, with more than 1,600 students. More than 62,000 are back in schools. He said 400 students — 200 for each online program — remain on the waiting lists.