BRISTOL, Va. — A proliferation of online learning, spurred by concerns over COVID-19, is prompting at least 10 Southwest Virginia school districts to work toward establishing a regional virtual academy.
Bristol Virginia Superintendent Keith Perrigan, who also serves as president of the Virginia Coalition of Rural Schools, helped initiate the conversation three months ago. The city School Board agreed to participate in January and, since then, nine other systems in Region VII — Bland, Giles, Pulaski, Radford, Russell, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wythe counties — have also joined.
Four others are considering the program, and four have rejected the idea of the 19 total regional divisions. Member divisions formed a governing board, which met virtually last month and selected Smyth County board member Paul Grinstead as its chairman and Bristol schools Chief Financial Officer Tammy Jones as clerk.
“We’ve kind of been in a hurry to get this in place for when school starts next year,” Perrigan told the virtual academy’s new board last month. “Virtual learning may not look like it does now, next fall. But now that Pandora’s Box has been opened, we’re not going to shove virtual learning back into it. I don’t know what the right plan is, but to not have any plan is the worst possible direction we can take.”
On Monday, Perrigan said that board is working and hopes to establish the academy before August.
“Ten school divisions in Region VII have signed an MOU [memorandum of understanding] to form a regional virtual academy. Under the current plan, we will be creating our own curriculum and hiring our own teachers,” Perrigan said. “We’ve had an offer from a private company that has offered to provide the curriculum and teachers for us at an affordable cost. We’re going through that proposal and negotiating with them.”
The academy board hopes to hire a director for the regional academy and decide this month to either provide instruction, sign an agreement with the private firm — Stride Inc. — to provide instruction or consider another offer that is expected this week, Perrigan said.
Stride Inc. is a Herndon-based publicly traded company formerly known as K12. Stride bills itself as the “nation’s leading provider of online and blended education,” according to its website. Stride claims it has enrolled 165,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade nationwide, in addition to adult education and other programs.
Under the plan, online classes would be offered at no charge to families with funds coming from the state, which provides money to help educate each student enrolled in every division. The city receives about $7,000 annually per student, but each locality is funded differently, based on an economic formula.
“We think we can do it [virtual academy] for $3,500 per pupil. The private company is offering us, on average, $2,500 per student,” Perrigan said. Each division would retain the balance of state funding for all its students enrolled.
More than 600 city students are receiving fully online instruction this semester out of about 15,000 virtual learners region wide, Perrigan said.
Under the existing plan, enrollment dollars, athletic eligibility through the Virginia High School league and Standards of Learning test scores would all remain with the original division.
Virginia Virtual Academy already offers tuition-free classes in conjunction with Virginia systems in King and Queen County, Patrick County and Richmond city public schools.
Fifteen former Bristol students, who still live in the city, are now enrolled in online classes through Richmond city schools.
“We have had students who left us to join other virtual academies. So by having our own virtual academy we will protect ourselves from future enrollment loss,” Perrigan said.
The academy would relieve pressure on classroom teachers who continue providing a mixture of virtual and in-person learning.
“Our teachers have done phenomenal work this year teaching in two different worlds — teaching in-person and have students who are learning virtually,” Perrigan said. “For every lesson they teach, they’re creating two different lesson plans and delivering the lesson two different ways. Our teachers have really stepped up to make that happen, but to think they can continue to do this next year and the year after is just not feasible. By offering a virtual academy, that will allow our teachers to just teach in one platform.”
Additionally, legislation now before the Virginia General Assembly may force all school divisions to offer some form of online learning platform going forward. Senate Bill 1303 would “require each local school division to make in-person and virtual learning available to all students by choice of the student’s parent or guardian.”
If the board agrees to create the academy, provide the instruction and hire personnel, it is forecast to cost $1.78 million annually, based on enrollment of 500 students.