How a district created a virtual learning academy during COVID

Darlington County teachers will have time for one-on-one sessions with students and small-group instruction
By: | August 27, 2020

Darlington County School District in rural South Carolina saw an overwhelming response when educators there launched a virtual academy to enhance online learning this school year.

During spring distance learning, not all students were able to interact sufficiently with teachers, says Carla Jefferson, director of the virtual academy.

Administrators were concerned that, heading in 2020-2021, some students might leave the Title I district for homeschooling or other virtual schools despite Darlington County’s three-year-old 1-to-1 program.

“After COVID hit, we felt like we did a fairly good job of proving access, resources and support to students,” Jefferson says. “Coming back, we knew parents would be apprehensive about sending children to school.”

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Jefferson and her team spent the summer providing professional development for teachers and designing the virtual academy, which opened in late August. About 130 teachers, who are using a vacated elementary as one of their bases for delivering online learning, are now holding synchronous classes on a schedule that, to some degree, mimicks a regular school day.

However, time has been carved out for teachers to meet one-on-one with students and conduct small group instruction. They will use data to determine which students are most in need of interventions, Jefferson says.

They will assign offline and independent work, which should also allow students to demonstrate learning through arts, coding and other more creative methods.

“We cannot expect students to stare at a screen for six to eight hours a day,” Jefferson says.

On ‘Flexible Fridays,’ small group instruction will take place in the morning and students will work independently in the afternoons, while teachers participate in professional development sessions.

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Along with core academic instruction, Darlington County’s teachers are starting the year by delivering lessons on digital citizenship and how to participate in video-conferencing.

The district also is offering evening ed-tech sessions for parents so they can help student use new digital tools.

Ultimately, about 3,700 students have enrolled in the fully-online virtual academy, about what three times what administrators of the 10,000-student district had expected.

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.

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