A third virtual public school, Virginia Connections Academy, is a new option for sixth- through 10th-graders this year.
Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on September 3, 2022
Like many local students, Scott Clark’s four daughters went back to school last month, but for them, it just meant starting up their computers. The girls — ages 7, 14 and 12-year-old twins — are enrolled in Virtual Virginia Academy, or VAVA, an online learning program that uses curriculum from Stride K12 and partners with local public school districts.
VAVA has been around for 12 years, but it’s seeing its enrollment numbers exceed those of pre-pandemic years.
Clark, who lives in Fredericksburg, said the pandemic led him to choose VAVA for his three older daughters last year. It worked out so well for them that they are staying with the program this year.
“I have nothing but good things to stay about it, and my youngest daughter, because of how well my older girls are doing and all the pros to it, is starting this year,” Clark said.
“They are able to focus on their subjects because they don’t have other kids talking, and they feel less inhibited to ask questions,” he said.
The Clark girls are among a large number of Virginia students who are continuing with online learning, even though schools are open with minimal COVID restrictions.
Suhad Garcia-Batiz, VAVA’s middle school principal, said there are 1,080 middle school students enrolled this year, compared with 750 during the pre-pandemic 2019-20 school year.
“Back in 2019-20, families generally did not seek alternate school options and certainly not virtual,” Garcia-Batiz said. “With the pandemic and the increasing attention that virtual education has received, we were put in the spotlight so much more. We are an established program, and we’re 12 years into existence and very successful.”
Middle school enrollment tripled in 2020-21, and though it’s down from that peak, it’s still above pre-pandemic levels.
Statewide, just over 4,300 students in grades K-12 are enrolled in VAVA for this school year.
The program is tuition-free, and the enrolled student retains membership in their local public school division, meaning the public school’s average daily membership — which determines how much funding it receives from the state — isn’t affected.
Another statewide online program is Virtual Virginia, which is run by the Virginia Department of Education.
Virtual Virginia partners with all state school divisions and offers K-12 online education as well as a statewide learning management system, professional learning opportunities and summer school.
As with VAVA, students enrolled in Virtual Virginia retain their membership in the local public school division.
Virtual Virginia Executive Director Brian Mott told WAVY earlier this month that full-time enrollment is at 3,374 students going into this school year, compared with 413 students in the 2019-20 school year. Enrollment spiked at 8,788 students during the 2021-22 school year.
The school partners with Scott County Public Schools but enrolls students from across the state, principal Darla Gardner said.
Virginia Connections Academy uses a curriculum that is in line with state standards, and it participates in required state assessments.
As of late August, there were 437 students enrolled in the school, many of them from the Fredericksburg area, Gardner said.
Gardner said every family she talks to has a unique reason for choosing virtual school.
“One student has extreme medical conditions,” she said. “Another student plays travel sports and needs a flexible schedule. One student has severe anxiety. So, really, every family has a different reason, and with our flexible schedule, it gives them the opportunity to receive a quality education at home.”
Another reason families may be choosing virtual school is because they are somewhat insulated from the nationwide teacher shortage.
“Last year, at least just in the middle school, we only had three instructional staff resign at the end of last year,” Garcia-Batiz said. “Most of my staff who’ve been with us have expressed zero desire to leave and that they enjoy virtual teaching.”
VAVA teachers — and those who work for the other statewide virtual public schools — must have an up-to-date certification from the state in the subject they will be teaching. However, their workload is different from that of in-school teachers.
VAVA students receive curriculum through online modules that they complete during the school day at their own pace. Teachers use the live instruction time to check for understanding and “target necessary skills,” Garcia-Batiz said.
Clark said he’s observed his daughters improve their time management, communication and problem-solving skills during their year in VAVA.
“They’re not being held by the hand,” he said. “When you have to think on your own and do your schedule, now you’re learning to be independent.”
Clark said he asked his daughters if they wanted to go back to in-person school this year. They did not.
“They go, ‘I like doing this because I can really concentrate,’” he said.
Gardner said the pandemic gave families an opportunity to see how virtual school might fit their needs.
“I know that the virtual environment is not the best fit for every family,” she said. “But the virtual environment is the best fit for many families, depending on the situation.”
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