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Florida school districts beef up virtual programs to keep students

Hillsborough's virtual enrollment has quadruped, whether from marketing, the coronavirus, or likely both.
Matthew Hoff is Hillsborough County's new Director of Virtual Instruction Programs.
Matthew Hoff is Hillsborough County's new Director of Virtual Instruction Programs. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]
Published Jul. 6, 2020
Updated Jul. 6, 2020

TAMPA — When students complete classes in a Florida virtual school, the public money tied to them flows away from their local district and often to a private company.

That wrinkle in state education funding is one of the reasons why school districts are beefing up their in-house virtual programs as the COVID-19 crisis continues, ensuring that demand for online learning will continue to be high.

Hillsborough County might buy television ad time to promote its rebranded program, now called Hillsborough Virtual K-12.

“This is something the county has offered for years,” said Matthew Hoff, who was named recently as Hillsborough’s director of virtual instruction programs. “And it’s an opportunity to put it in the forefront.”

Hillsborough County's virtual school has taken on a new name and logo as the district seeks to serve students who will prefer a home setting due to COVID-19. [Hillsborough County Public Schools]
Hillsborough County's virtual school has taken on a new name and logo as the district seeks to serve students who will prefer a home setting due to COVID-19. [Hillsborough County Public Schools]

Districts want to hold onto students who wish to learn at home, while protecting jobs for teachers, who can transfer into virtual jobs. While opening dates remain uncertain because of the escalating growth in coronavirus cases, no one doubts that a significant percent will opt for at-home learning, no matter what.

The question: What format will they chose?

Competition comes from industry leaders such as K-12 of Herndon, Va.; and Connections Academy, a division of the Pearson educational company. Then there is Florida Virtual School, a statewide public school that functions is often the go-to for students who need an extra course, or a break from the social pressures of conventional school.

“We are doing some marketing to make sure that parents are aware that this option is available for them,” said Mandy Perry, principal of Pinellas Virtual School. Digital ads and other media displays are under consideration, she said.

Among the selling points: “It’s a smoother transition than if they opt for the commercial option. We use Pinellas County teachers. We have access to the student information system, and those records all transfer over to us.”

The pitch appears to be working. Enrollment in Hillsborough Virtual, at more than 1,300 so far, has more than quadrupled over last year’s levels. Pinellas Virtual is also seeing a surge, and Pinellas has not even released the reopening plan that most families will use to weigh their options.

“In elementary, it has tripled,” Perry said.

School officials acknowledge most are starting from a low base. Pinellas Virtual had about 110 students last year. Addison Davis, the new superintendent in Hillsborough, was shocked to learn his district had about 300 in the full-time virtual program. But he is encouraged by a recent parent survey, which showed nearly 22 percent of families prefer virtual instruction if schools reopen in a traditional format.

Pasco County, in contrast, has a well developed “eSchool” that serves as many as 600 full-time students every year and 22,000 who take individual courses a la carte. Founder and principal JoAnne Glenn says Pasco made a name for itself by offering courses students could not yet find elsewhere, such as American Sign Language, German, and creative photography.

But those numbers could still change dramatically, she said. Surveys show add:an additional 3,540 Pasco students are headed for eSchool, and Pasco has not even heard back from all the parents.

Joanne Glenn, Pasco eSchool principal, addresses the eSchool faculty on the opening day of teacher preplanning week. Pasco eSchool was named Florida Virtual School Franchise of the Year among large districts. The school is in its 10th year. [Courtesy of Gail Diederich]
Joanne Glenn, Pasco eSchool principal, addresses the eSchool faculty on the opening day of teacher preplanning week. Pasco eSchool was named Florida Virtual School Franchise of the Year among large districts. The school is in its 10th year. [Courtesy of Gail Diederich]

The tricky part, for all districts, is making virtual school work for students and teachers who are choosing the option, not because it is their preferred method to teach or learn, but because of the health concerns posed by COVID-19. Teachers will need orientation and ongoing training. Students might struggle, as they did in the spring, with the less structured routine.

“We understand that this is going to be a temporary blip, for probably this school year,” Glenn said. But she sees an opportunity to build relationships with families who might sample Pasco eSchool for kindergarten, and then return when their children need that online course for a graduation requirement.

Hoff, who is at the beginning of the expansion process in Hillsborough, is trying to help families distinguish between true virtual school and “e-learning,” a slapped-together system that was forced on districts when the schools closed statewide in March.

“We left for Spring Break and it was like, hey, we’re not going back to school for the rest of the year!” Hoff said. “So it was one of those things where the teachers did the absolute best they could. But we weren’t entirely prepared for that, because how can you be ready for something that’s never happened before?”

E-learning was tied to the teacher’s daily work schedule, which made for conflicts as families juggled their job and learning responsibilities.

In virtual school, families have more flexibility. Teachers record their lessons so students can replay them if they need to. They push out a week of assignments so students can go at their own pace. When they hold live sessions, it is to review a concept that was especially hard, or take questions, or allow students to socialize.

There is also an escape hatch, of sorts. After applying through the district website, the family attends an online orientation that includes explicit instructions in how to access and submit assignments. “Parents can see what it actually, really is going to be versus what they think it will be,” Hoff said. If it doesn’t seem to be a good fit, the child can switch back to traditional school.

Much is still unclear, even though Hillsborough released its preliminary reopening plan on June 23.

Will Hillsborough loan out laptops as it did in the spring? That has not been decided. The district and teachers’ union are having ongoing discussions about who will get priority in virtual teaching jobs. The enrollment deadline for Hillsborough Virtual is July 24, but even that could change.

As for moves that families might want to make in October or November, Hoff said, “we’d have to adjust staffing models to accommodate that. But that’s where we’d have to work to best support the kids any way that we can.”