Some 78 students are enrolled at the Bedford County Virtual School. BCVS serves fourth through tenth grades with the ninth and tenth grades the most recently added since the school program began three years ago.
“This is real school,” said BCVS Principal Meredith Gilliland. “School is not a one-size-fits-all. And I think it’s important that parents in Bedford County have choices.”
Parent involvement is one of the major reason virtual school is still an option. Having a parent at home is part of the contract. In surveying the students, some 86% said there was an adult at home. And the students with parent support at home do better.
Though parents are encouraged to be a part of the program, the BCVS is not a homeschool. Students in fourth through eight are taught by certified teachers who teach live who “broadcast” from the BCVS wing at Cascade Middle School.
Though homeschooling is a good option for some families, the content at some point goes beyond what the parent is trained to teach. “We can be an option for students, that’s free, and have our BCVS supports in place...,” said Gilliland.
The majority of the students’ days are synchronous, meaning they are with a person. “We follow schedule guidelines that all schools in Bedford County follow, so there are directives with how much uninterrupted instructional time each course receives,” said Gilliland.
Those “asynchronous times” include recess and related arts which students do on their own.
Gilliland explained that the schedule is set up in 30-minute increments. Elementary and middle school students get breaks every hour to help alleviate screen time, while high school students have more flexible break times as long as they complete the required seven hours of class time and attend live lessons.
Often, Gilliland said, students will form online friendships with other students and get lunch together in person before reentering virtual school. “As much as we encourage them to get away from the computer, they’re also using it to socialize,” said Gilliland.
BCVS also has “in-person learning days,” where students get together once a month where they take filed trips or do hands-on learning activities through STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs.
“We spend all day long online with them, but to see them face-to-face is good,” said Gilliland.
The demands of virtual learning are challenging to younger students, which is why numbers are lowest in fourth grade and why third grade was dropped from last. “There’s a lot of independence, problem solving, troubleshooting, managing time,” said Gilliland.
Also, as many parents return to the office themselves, younger students return to in-person learning.
High school students are a little different in that they use a program called “Pearson,” which is the same company that makes TCAP tests. They have state-certified teachers as well as live lessons, and each student receives an in-person advisor at the BCVS in addition to a Pearson advisor.
“We’re here for them. A lot of high school students come in to work on things. We do a lot on one-on-one calls with them,” said Gilliland.
Students also have access to an online 24-7 tutoring program called “Paper.” Available in three languages, tutors typically respond within a few minutes to help coach students through papers and problem solving.
There are some benefits to this added screentime. Students learn how to troubleshoot, problem solve, organize files online, take screenshots — skills that many employers today look for.
“Students adapt really quickly,” said Gilliland. “We’re preparing our students for careers that don’t exist yet. So, any edge we can give them with technology — because technology is not going away — that’s huge.”
In addition to allowing parents to be more involved in their child’s education, virtual school is still a viable option as many students decide to move their studies to home and online due to health concerns, social anxiety, and better time management.
“I think if we expand — which it’s a decision we haven’t made yet — to upper high school, that’s a flexibility we can offer so they can work if they have to,” said Gilliland.
Gilliland said virtual schools even in larger districts hover around that 75-student mark. “So, Bedford as a rural area is doing pretty well.”
The state also requires all virtual schools go through a monitoring process to make sure all laws are followed when it comes to time management, fiscal management, attendance, and virtual programming.
It’s a lengthy process, according to Gilliland. Between July and December, the district school monitoring team along with the Department of Education complete rubrics, on-site visits, classroom observations, interviews with parents and teachers. Results are posted and sent to parents.
“That was a really productive visit because it allowed our leaders in Bedford County to see what we’re doing. I think transparency is good. And it allowed us to problem solve in areas where we may be falling short,” said Gilliland.
Enrollment for the spring semester at BCVS closes Feb. 1. But it will be posted again for next year beginning in early April.
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