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Mecklenburg trustees change course, renew virtual learning / September 01, 2021

After reversing course on virtual learning by backing away from an online education platform, the Mecklenburg County School Board has reversed itself again.

On Monday, the school board voted to again move forward with plans to offer some students within the school division the opportunity to enroll in the Virginia Virtual Academy K12 online program.

The vote was 6-2 with Vice Chair Dora Garner and board members Brent Richey, Gloria Smith, Lindell Palmer, Glenn Edwards, and Ricky Allgood agreeing to reinstate the program. Chair Gavin Honeycutt and Wanda Bailey voted “no.” Rob Campbell was absent from the meeting.

During a special called meeting on Aug. 4, trustees initially agreed to enter into a contract with Virginia Virtual Academy K12 (VAVA-K12), an online learning program for students in grades K-12.

Virginia Virtual Academy K12 is a private company that offers tuition-free online classes for students enrolled in public schools, as an alternative to in-person classroom instruction. Payment for these online classes comes from state education funding, based on average daily membership, a measure of the number of students enrolled in a local school division.

Two weeks later, the school board ended this commitment, after questions were raised about the cost of the program and who would assume the burden of record keeping that the state requires for students who learn online.

At the time that second vote was taken on Aug. 16, Superintendent Paul Nichols had already entered into a memorandum of understanding with VAVA-K12, as he had earlier been directed to do by the school board.

As of Aug. 16, Nichols said about 14 students had qualified for the program.

The VAVA-K12 program differs from Virtual Virginia, which is offered through the Virginia Department of Education. Virtual Virginia consists of online courses taught by Virginia-certified teachers that incorporate daily real-time opportunities and asynchronous learning experiences for part-time and full-time students. The window for students to enroll in Virtual Virginia closed several months ago.

While Nichols said he believes Virtual Virginia is a preferable program for MCPS students, it is no longer available for the students who may now be seeking an online instructional option for the upcoming academic year.

Nichols said as there was some question about whether the board could cancel its contract with VAVA-K12 with its Aug. 16 vote, he moved to renegotiate the terms of the agreement, eliminating the main points of controversy.

The total number of MCPS students who will be allowed to enroll in VAVA-K12 will be capped at 500, not the 2,000 that VAVA wanted. The responsibility for maintaining and uploading data on student performance required by the Virginia Department of Education will be borne and paid for by VAVA.

Nichols said he is aware the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in Mecklenburg County ahead of the school year has many parents rethinking whether they want to send their children inside school buildings for in-person learning. For the most part, the General Assembly removed the option for school divisions to offer virtual learning for students in grades K-12 with legislation enacted during a special session earlier this year.

A bill signed by Gov. Ralph Northam on March 30 mandates that all Virginia school divisions provide in-person instruction to its students five days a week unless, after consulting with the local health department, the rate of transmission of COVID-19 within a building or classroom is deemed to be at a high risk level.

Nichols said he felt that parents who have a legitimate basis of concern for the health of their children with in-person classroom learning should have the option of home-based virtual learning.

There is one overriding precondition, Nichols said: the student must have shown successful achievement in all grade-level classes during last year’s virtual school session. He stressed that MCPS reserves the right to vet all students for academic performance when parents or guardians ask to enroll them in the VAVA program.

He said data collected from school divisions across the Commonwealth prove that most students learn best with face-to-face learning with their teachers. Mecklenburg County students were no exception. “Few students were successful last year,” Nichols explained. His hope is that only a handful of parents will exercise the option to keep their students at home for virtual education.

With reinstatement of VAVA-K12 program, Nichols said there are still several details that need to be worked out. These include:

» Whether students enrolled in the VAVA homeschooling program will be allowed to participate in MCPS extra-curricular activities or school sports, and

» Whether students enrolled in VAVA will qualify for free lunches currently offered all students who attend MCPS in person.

Parents who want their child to attend school virtually for the coming school year need to send a written request to Mecklenburg County Public Schools, 175 Mayfield Drive, Boydton 23917 before the start of school on Sept. 7. If the student is approved for the VAVA-K12 homeschool program, be aware that they will be required to continue home schooling for the entire year.

“There is no opt in and opt out allowed,” Nichols said.

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