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4 lessons brick-and-mortar schools can learn from virtual schools

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In South Carolina, the COVID-19 pandemic has led many families to choose online education. We had 19,629 enrollments in our Virtual SC high school program this fall, which amounts to 36.1% growth over last fall. Through our franchise program, we offer our courses to school districts across the state for a fee so that those districts are able to build their own virtual programs using our curriculum, tools, and training. Our franchise program enrollments grew from 2,946 to 57,668 over the past year -- that’s 1,857.5% growth. 

At the beginning of our year, we had a mad dash to get enough teachers on board to meet those enrollment demands. We ended up adding almost 50 teachers to our faculty this semester. Here are four lessons we’ve learned from this busy year that can benefit school and district leaders everywhere. 

Collaborating to support students with special needs

We have definitely seen an uptick in enrollment of students who receive special education services, so we were very fortunate this year to be able to hire our very first exceptional learner specialist. She has played an instrumental role in working with schools and families to make sure that those students with learning disabilities have the support they need to succeed. She’s making sure that we're partnering with schools to do what we can do as a virtual program. She’s also leaning on the schools to do some of the things that become a little more challenging for the virtual program, such as providing any special hardware or software students need to better facilitate their learning or providing live oral proctors when required.

Our exceptional learner specialist has done a great job of clarifying how our teachers can implement strategies to support students with special learning needs, so there are some enhanced supports that students are getting now that they didn't necessarily receive before, including:

  • Making minor adjustments to assignment wording; 
  • Providing sentence stems for English language learners;
  • Allowing for alternative response options; and
  • Making minor formatting adjustments.

For those students who need face-to-face instruction, our exceptional learner specialist is working to ensure that schools are armed with the knowledge about our program and courses they need to give exceptional learners the support they need. She is also helping schools understand special features of our program that should be considered, such as the independent nature of our coursework, which may necessitate the school support personnel being looped into messages about progress.

Emphasizing communication skills

In a virtual atmosphere, one of the most important lessons we’re teaching all of our elementary school students is typing. It’s a skill they’re using to communicate every day. I think about our young kids moving into middle school and high school. If they’re still hunting and pecking, that really slows them down and can even begin to interfere with their ability to do their work. They may have the knowledge or the ideas, but if they're going to share them in an electronic format, then they need to be able to do it as efficiently as possible.

Across the state, we have a total of 41 districts who are using the game-based typing program TypeTastic, five of which were new this fall. In normal years, our special projects coordinator would travel across the state to get these new districts up to speed face-to-face, but this year she has worked with TypeTastic and used a program called CourseArc to build online training modules instead.

Typing goes hand-in-hand with literacy skills. Everything in our courses has so much text in it that students who have a hard time reading tend to struggle. To address that issue, South Carolina has required all teachers to earn a literacy endorsement on their teaching certificates, so the majority of our teachers have taken special coursework in literacy. We have also taken steps as a program to provide instruction in formats other than just in writing, such as incorporating instructional video intros to courses, which are created by members of our Curriculum Team and by individual teachers.  

Using tech to bridge the relationship gap

In a virtual environment, students, teachers and parents can feel isolated. Many students who are now taking courses with us have never taken online courses before. They’re used to seeing their teachers every day, so not having that connection is a culture shock. To bridge that relationship gap, we use web-conferencing tools Jigsaw and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Web-conferencing has done wonders to help teachers build relationships and foster the sense of community that students are used to in a face-to-face classroom.

When it comes to maintaining the school-to-home connection, programs like Remind allow teachers to send out little bits of information via text to students and parents. This has been really helpful because another challenge of the virtual environment is that parents can feel left out, and Remind is a way for us to keep an open line of communication with them.

Practicing consistency, simplicity, care and grace

If I were offering closing advice to brick-and-mortar school leaders based on my experience in a virtual environment, I would say that consistency is extremely important. Rather than shifting rules or schedules here and there in an effort to get to the perfect solution, make a choice and stick with it long enough to really see whether or not it works.

Another lesson I’ve learned is the value of simplicity. Sometimes we want to jump into this virtual experience and try technology with all the bells and whistles -- but that can be overwhelming, especially for teachers right now, many of whom are really just trying to survive.

My last two suggestions are simply care and grace. While student achievement must be the number one goal, let’s care enough to make sure our students and teachers are okay, and let’s offer one another the grace that we all need to get through an incredibly challenging year.

Catayah Clark is the High School Instruction Team Leader for Virtual SC, where they use TypeTastic to teach keyboarding skills to elementary school students. She can be reached at cdclark@ed.sc.gov.

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