Officials with Forsyth County Schools are planning to create a more permanent virtual schooling option for elementary students, moving the current program under the long-established Forsyth Virtual Academy in time for the 2022-23 school year.
Lee Anne Rice, associate superintendent of teaching and learning, reminded Forsyth County Board of Education members at the regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 18, that the virtual program for K-5 students was quickly created in 2020 for safety reasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The district had been offering virtual classes to students in grades 6-12 for many years through FVA, but the program created for elementary students was entirely new to district leaders, administration members, teachers and families.
“But as we move forward, I think we need to look at a more strategic and intentional long-term solution for virtual education,” Rice said.
A big step in that long-term solution is moving this K-5 virtual program into Forsyth Virtual Academy along with the sixth grade through 12-grade program. This way, Rice said all full-time virtual students and families can find their teachers, administration, counselors, and other resources all in one place.
This means educators who teach virtually would be based at the Academies for Creative Education, which houses Forsyth Virtual Academy, instead of a traditional elementary school, and the program will be led by ACE Principal Drew Hayes.
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Otherwise, Rice said the virtual learning model for all grades will continue as normal.
Middle and high school students will continue to have access to asynchronous classes online through either a full-time or part-time virtual course schedule, and synchronous classes will continue online for elementary students.
Outside of classes, students can take part in clubs, extracurriculars and athletics at their base schools.
Rice said she and her team decided to create this more permanent solution for virtual learning in Forsyth County Schools because of the number of students enrolled in the program full time.
In fall of 2020, about 40%, or nearly 9,000, of K-5 students in the district were enrolled in the program, mostly due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That number started to drop with each semester, decreasing to close to 5,500 in the spring of 2021 and then nearly 1,500 later in the year.
Now, the K-5 program serves just over 800 students.
“That’s the size of a school,” Rice said. “Even though we’re seeing the numbers decline significantly, we do recognize that this virtual model still serves many of our families regardless of a pandemic. Many of our families have seen the benefits of virtual education for our elementary students, so we want to make sure that we’re providing this opportunity.”
Moving forward with the plan to move K-5 into Forsyth Virtual Academy, Rice and her team have begun working with human resources and other departments to make sure they have the space, staff and educational resources available to support virtual enrollment next school year.
Since elementary classes are synchronous, the district must find teachers who can dedicate their time to virtual learning at ACE.
To find out how many virtual teachers will be needed to support the program, district leaders sent out surveys to parents and guardians beginning on Wednesday, asking those interested in enrolling a child in virtual learning full time to fill it out and make a year-long commitment for the 2022-23 year.
Moving forward, Rice said this will be a similar process to out-of-district requests or applications for Alliance Academy for Innovation. Once those forms are submitted, families are committing to moving schools for the next year rather than a single semester.
Parents and guardians will have until Monday, Feb. 7, to fill out the survey and guarantee the child’s spot in the virtual learning program.
Rice said the district needs this information quickly so human resources can determine if teachers may need to move to a different school and make sure Forsyth Virtual Academy is fully staffed.
“For example, if one of our elementary schools has 75 students who elect to go into virtual education for next year, that’s about three teachers at that school,” Rice said. “That’s 75 students who would not be attending face-to-face at that elementary school, and so we could use those three teachers and move them under Forsyth Virtual Academy.”
District leaders and board of education members emphasized at the meeting that parents need to take this commitment into careful consideration before making a final decision.
Over the past two years, parents and guardians for K-5 students enrolled in virtual learning have had to give an enormous amount of support to their kids at home throughout the school day. Going forward, Rice explained parents would still need to be actively involved in the student’s education at home.
“Children, especially in kindergarten, first and second grades, need that support to be able to access the technology, login [and] access their assignments,” Rice said. “And so we do ask that parents consider how important their support and daily work with their children will be.”
Hayes told the board they had started to have a conversation around potentially holding training sessions for parents to show them the basics of how to navigate ItsLearning and other online platforms while helping their children through the daily schedule.
Rice said many families have been able to determine whether virtual learning truly works for them over the last two years.
Overall, she said children who are organized, are self-motivated, can advocate for themselves, are not afraid to ask questions and can let the teacher know if they are not understanding something are successful in virtual environments.
Hayes and Rice continued to emphasize during the meeting that it is essential families understand that filling out the survey commits their child to a full year of virtual learning.
“If we’re dedicating staff to provide this option, we need our families to be committed to that model,” Rice said.
Moving forward Rice, Hayes and their teams will continue working with departments and leadership across the district to ensure the success of the virtual program for next school year.
The board thanked them both for their work on the program, pointing out the importance of offering virtual learning to families in the district.
“It provides parents a choice and an option of what’s best for them,” Vice Chair Wes McCall said. “We learned through Covid that, with 50,000 students, everybody has their own situation going on. This provides the parents with tools to help what’s best for their kids. It goes along the lines of individualized learning.”
For more information on the program and Forsyth Virtual Academy, visit the district’s website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us.