Virtual school options earning high grades

Melissa Denham, center, helps sons Dalton, left, a fourth-grade student at The Villages Charter School, and Ryder, a kindergarten student, with virtual schoolwork at their home in Lady Lake.

Thousands of families have turned to virtual schools in the tri-county area this year, choosing options that hadn’t existed at The Villages Charter School or that attracted far fewer students a year ago.

“We hadn’t really considered virtual school full-time before COVID,” said Debbie Allen, of Fruitland Park, who has three sons enrolled in Lake County Virtual School.

Family medical needs prompted Allen and other families to consider virtual school or the live online learning option in which students follow their regular school’s bell schedule from their computers at home.

Virtual school families said they like the flexibility.

However, educators said the flexibility, which works very well for a few, requires much more self-discipline and a lot more parental involvement.

“My husband and I are still able to work full-time jobs,” said Melissa Denham, a nurse with The Villages Health who has two elementary-age sons in The Villages Charter School’s VCS Virtual.

Her sons, one in kindergarten and one in fourth-grade, spend the day with their great-grandmother and do their schoolwork. Then, when she gets home from work, she checks their work and submits it.

“It’s challenging. We’re just now getting into a routine,” Denham said a month after the start of the school year.

Allen also said it took about four weeks for her family to find its groove. She and her husband, Daryl, are pastors at Community United Methodist Church. Depending on their work schedules, some days their sons work in the morning, other days in the afternoon and, sometimes, after dinner. 

The oldest, in 11th grade, works independently, but the other two are in elementary and middle school and need support from a parent or their older brother. Their family reviews upcoming assignments and plans a schedule for every lesson, quiz, worksheet and discussion-based assignment on Sunday nights.  

A year ago, Lake County Virtual School was the smallest school in the district. Now, it’s the largest.

Lake County Virtual School grew from 78 students Sept. 11, 2019, to 4,546 on Sept. 14.

Marion Virtual School grew from 1,815 students Oct. 9, 2019, to 2,381 as of Sept. 17.

Sumter Virtual School grew from about 100 students before COVID-19 to roughly 350 this month. It has also grown from 426 active courses last year to 1,413 courses as of Sept. 14, said Ellen Coomer, administrative intern overseeing the school.

“We have added elementary to virtual this year,” she said. “It’s our first year for that.”

The Villages Charter School did not have a virtual school option until this semester. VCS Online’s virtual-learning program has about 5% of the charter school’s more than 3,300 students, and another 16% of students are following classes live in Buffalo eLearning. The other 71% of students are on campus for the traditional instructional model inside a classroom, face-to-face with a teacher.

Buffalo eLearning, Lake Live, TEAMSumter and MCPSOnline all offer students online learning from home but follow the regular school schedule. Students are expected to log in by the time the first school bell rings and follow their teachers’ online videos. Class assignments are generally due at the end of the class period. At the charter school, the eLearning students’s initials are usually projected onto the whiteboard at the front of the classroom, and they can see and hear their teachers.

In Lake Live, designated teachers conduct lessons from otherwise empty classrooms set up with a video camera and teaching tools.

Virtual schools have been long-standing options for technology-based education. Many students take virtual courses to make up high school credits or accelerate a program of study. Sometimes a student wants to take classes, such as a foreign language course in German or Italian, for example, not offered at their regular high school. Sumter, Lake and Marion county districts and the charter school offer virtual school classes under a franchise agreement with Florida Virtual School, a statewide public school district. Teachers communicate individually with students and parents by phone, email, text message and other forums, according to the Marion Virtual School website.

“Parental involvement and support are key elements for student success in the online environment,” the website says.

Students and families got a taste of online education when schools shut down statewide in March and scrambled to offer distance learning. 

Some liked the freedom and breezed through some lessons to spend more time on others. Other students struggled.

Teachers and schools learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t and came up with their own ways of doing live, synchronous instruction for students who are at home.

Brianna Detwiler is the mother of two elementary students in Buffalo eLearning, which she said has been easier than online learning was in March, April and May.

“I think last spring when we went digital, everyone was just trying their best, but it was very difficult,” she said. “We made the decision to do Buffalo eLearning because it ran a similar schedule to what they would experience in school. I was nervous to how it would go, but my kindergartner and third grader are doing better than I thought they might.”

They also have less work on the computer this fall than they did last spring. They use regular books in addition to their Chromebook computers while on Google Meets, so their teachers can give them feedback.

Although she is able to sit with them while they work, Detwiler said she keeps a little distance so they don’t distract each other.

The charter school is authorized to provide its online options for this semester only, said Patrick Murphy, supervisor of curriculum, instruction, assessment and technology.

“It serves a purpose for certain situations and needs, but education was not meant to be that way,” Murphy said.

Students, particularly young students, learn by seeing and being with others, he said, adding that online education is a short-term solution for families vulnerable to COVID-19.

Ken and Carrie Wood have cooperated with their neighbors Andre and Raquel Nacaxe to oversee their children’s Buffalo eLearning. Both families in Oxford have a second grader and a sixth grader working at one family’s house on Mondays and Tuesdays and the others on Wednesdays and Thursdays and alternating Fridays. Carrie said she usually works with the children Thursdays, and her husband works with them Wednesdays.

“Really, you’re kind of like a mediator,” she said, adding she helps with technical issues, such as the printer, and makes sure they are logged in from 7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. “The teachers do an incredible job with the curriculum.”

The second graders need a little more help, but the sixth-graders are fairly independent. She makes sure they have what they need for physical education and recess and their snack for snacktime.

Wood’s sixth grader, Howie, said he likes working with his good friend Aaron Nacaxe but is still eager to get back to school. He also called working from different homes each week “stressful.”

Wood’s daughter, Zada, said she likes that she gets to play after school with Ariel Nacaxe.

“I like doing it online,” Zada said. “My teacher is really nice this year. She makes the assignments fun.”

Staff writer Dayna Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5408, or dayna.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.