Southwest Virginia is setting a model for virtual learning — even after the COVID-19 pandemic

Southwest Virginia is setting a model for virtual learning — even after the COVID-19 pandemic
Districts can maintain a remote option — which is no longer a requirement for schools that open for in-person instruction — without having it compete with face-to-face learning. (Source: AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

By the time coronavirus cases began surging across Virginia for the third time in less than a year, Keith Perrigan knew his teachers needed a break.

“I never dreamed last March that we would be into this April and still dealing with the pandemic,” said Perrigan, who serves as the superintendent of Bristol Public Schools. Bristol was one of only nine divisions across the state to begin the school year with full in-person instruction. But even now, about 25 percent of the district’s students are still opting for remote learning.

“As numbers continued to increase, it became very apparent that we were going to have to continue providing virtual instruction in the following year,” he said. For many school districts, that presented challenges on multiple fronts. Teachers were already juggling online classes with five days a week of face-to-face instruction with no end in sight. At the same time, districts were still losing students to homeschooling, private schools and virtual programs that had perfected their own models of online learning.

“They’ve been able to create curriculums that are very expansive,” Perrigan said. “Whereas in Bristol, we were just basically doing the best we can to provide the best we could.”

Now, the school district is uniting with 16 others in Southwest Virginia on a solution — one administrator think could be a model for the rest of the state. Under a proposal currently being considered by the Virginia Board of Education, Bristol would join three city and 13 county divisions to create a regional Virtual Academy for full-time remote instruction.

The concept is similar to governor’s schools — regional academies that serve gifted students from multiple neighboring districts. But in this case, the program would be open to roughly 30 percent of students in Superintendent’s Region 7 (covering the southwestern corner of Virginia) who opted for online classes this school year.

Full-time coursework would be offered through three different vendors: Stride K12, Edgenuity, and Virtual Virginia, which is developed and run through the state’s Department of Education. Participating districts would pay a $10,000 administrative fee to cover the costs of operating the program and a per-pupil fee for the online curriculum.

Most importantly, all three programs would hire their own teachers, who have the same licensing and credentialing requirements as any other state educator, according to Perrigan. The benefits, he said, are manifold. Districts can maintain a remote option — which is no longer a requirement for schools that open for in-person instruction — without having it compete with face-to-face learning. Teachers won’t have to juggle two modes of instruction. And local administrators are hoping they’ll lure back students who left their divisions over the course of the pandemic.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.