RICHMOND — 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 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 spokesman 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.
“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.
“We have to work with the school divisions to meet this demand,” he added.
In Central Virginia, 213 students are enrolled in Virtual Virginia full-time with the most – 62 students – coming from the Greene County school division.
Albemarle, Charlottesville and Louisa school divisions have started their own virtual school programs. As of last week, the virtual school in Albemarle reached capacity with more than 400 students enrolled, and the division started a waitlist for all new requests.
Charlottesville’s program is available by application-only for students through eighth-grade. At the high school level, students could supplement their course load with classes through Virtual Virginia. State data shows two students from Charlottesville enrolled in Virtual Virginia full-time as of Sept. 1.
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 & personal finance and American sign language.
Virtual Virginia provides the instructional programming, and the teachers can set up their own schedules, which means some classes could be held outside during normal school hours.
In 2021, however, Virtual Virginia has expanded to include elementary instruction so more younger 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, homeschooled 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 homeschooled 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 Virtual Virginia was equipped to deal with this year’s need, thanks in part to contingency plans they created earlier this year 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 their programs in May for the following school year, this year, he 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 because of their 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, they continue to prioritize for three groups of students: those who have medical conditions that require them to learn remotely, 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 their strong recruiting efforts in early summer “ended up paying off in the long run.”