Here are some key details for building a regional virtual academy

Key question include funding, equity and class schedules, one superintendent says
By: | March 9, 2021
A High School District 214 student shows off a humanities project during an online learning session.A High School District 214 student shows off a humanities project during an online learning session.

Leaders from a group of 11 Chicago-area school districts are beginning to hammer out the details for a regional virtual academy that would launch in 2022-2023.

These administrators are now figuring out questions such as the funding formula and how to make the virtual academy an equitable opportunity for all students.

Another challenge will be working out the logistics of allowing students to spend the entire day or just single class periods at the academy, says David R. Schuler, superintendent of High School District 214.

“Whatever our experiences are this school year, we should be able to refine those practices and provide even bettering learning experiences in the future,” Schuler says. “We hope to offer courses to students whose families choose to be remote or offer courses we can’t offer in our current setting.”

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Shuler’s own district has offered hybrid learning during most of the 2020-21 COVID disrupted school year. They have used a “high flex” model that has allowed students to choose between in-person and online learning each day.

This may not be a sustainable model, as many teachers prefer to know ahead of time which students will be in the classroom and who will be online, Shuler says.

There’s the possibility the students interested in attending the virtual academy would have to choose their mode of instruction each quarter or semester.

One thing that is certain is that equity is essential. “The academy has to be something that expands opportunities for all students,” Shuler says.

A big online learning question many schools have faced is whether to require students to turn on their web cameras. In Shuler’s district, teachers found it preferable for students to have their cameras on.

That’s because teachers tend to thrive off of knowing whether students are understanding a lesson by being able to see their reactions. On the other hand, the district reversed course on an earlier decision to prohibit students from using virtual backgrounds.

“We found we were completely doing a disservice to students living in poverty who didn’t want their background showing,” he says. “In meetings with students, that was one of the first things that came up, and we haven’t seen anything offensive or inappropriate.”

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Like many superintendents, Shuler has seen students improve their grades in online learning while others have struggled—including some from within the same families.

Outside of health concerns, teachers and counselors in his district will reach out to families to discuss whether full-time online learning is appropriate for certain students.

“Some students know they get distracted in the classroom,” he says, “whereas others need that setting to meet their needs for social interactions.”