An online learning surprise: Stronger connections

How Greenville County Schools built a K-12 online academy for the 2020-21 school year
By: | March 8, 2021
Greenville County Schools educators share ideas for online learning innovations for the district's virtual academy, which is set to expand in 2021-22.Greenville County Schools educators share ideas for online learning innovations for the district's virtual academy, which is set to expand in 2021-22.

A big online learning surprise for leaders in Greenville County Schools was the depth of the relationships that developed between teachers and remote students.

“Ironically, one of the strengths of our virtual program is that many teachers and parents reported that teachers had even better connections with students,” says Jeff McCoy, the associate superintendent of academics. “Some of our students have been wildly successful.”

During the summer of 2020, the administrators in the South Carolina system expanded the district’s virtual high school offerings into a full-blown K-12 virtual academy to accommodate distance learners.

Administrators and about 700 teachers—most of whom had volunteered to go virtual—built out nine weeks of synchronous lessons to start the year, McCoy says.

More from DA: How 2 virtual academies gained momentum from COVID

Those lessons included extra enrichment and intervention periods that took place when in-person students would be transitioning between classes.

Allowing asynchronous learning is one the most important adjustments the district will make for 2021-22, McCoy says.

“We want to be flexible with parents who have to work during the day and can’t help their children,” he says. “We’ll record lessons so parents can watch with kids and help.”

Still, students who do not participate in live sessions will be marked absent unless parents have notified the school ahead of time.

Another key change will be beefed up tech support for all involved. The district will make an ample number of staff available to assist students and parents with issues such as logging into virtual learning, particularly at the beginning of the school year.

Letting teachers innovate

Principals are reviewing each student’s online performance in 2020-21 as they enroll in the virtual academy for the 2021-22 school year. They will reach out to parents of students who struggled with virtual instruction, McCoy says.

“We do feel like there will be one more year of pandemic considerations,” McCoy says. “But in the future, we will put more criteria in place, such as the profile of a successful virtual student.”

Those criteria will not include any socio-economic factors, but educators will look for students who are self-motivated, he says.

As for the educators, McCoy advises other administrators to let their teachers experiment with new approaches to online instruction.

“Since none of us as administrators had ever taught fully online, all day, we relied heavily on teachers to innovate and we gave them opportunities to share with each other,” McCoy says. “Our teachers went above and beyond.”

More from DAWhy rural Virginia districts are teaming up to launch virtual academy

The innovations included breaking virtual students into small groups based on the skills they were working on, while the teacher delivers direct instruction to another group of kids.

Administrators are also seeing evidence of students returning to the district from virtual charter schools that teach asynchronously, McCoy says.

“They’re coming back because of synchronous learning,” he says. “They wanted a live schedule, they want that  structure of having to be online at 8 a.m.”


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