Officials in the White House and Tallahassee are encouraging schools to reopen. But Harvard University’s fall semester will be online. The school district of West Palm Beach also decided to go virtual in the fall. And, yet, state Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran signed an emergency order requiring all schools to reopen to students in person when the academic year begins next month. Monroe County School District’s “Summer Boost” program has already been canceled.
In the Keys, uncertainty is building as the students’ first day of school (Aug. 13) gets closer. The Monroe County School District has laid out a draft plan for in-person classes if community spread is low, a hybrid mix of virtual and in-person classes if community spread is moderate, and a completely virtual school if cases are spiking.
The School Board will look at the COVID-19 data and guidance from county’s state Department of Health.
“I think Monroe County is experiencing the upper end of moderate spread currently. This is certainly subject to change,” said Bob Eadie, the health officer for Monroe County.
In a July 14 Youtube program, Superintendent of Schools Theresa Axford said the district has already cancelled a program for students through third grade on the advice of Eadie.
“We want to come back (to face-to-face instruction). Students need school, friends, socialization. But I am not the real boss right now. COVID-19 is the boss,” she said.
Axford said the case count has to plateau, or fall for two weeks, before schools can reopen to students and teachers in the same building. If the case count doesn’t begin to fall soon, that will mean a hybrid mix of virtual and in-person classes for Keys students.
School board member Sue Woltanski said the draft plan is coming back to the board on July 21. A week later, it will be sent off to Tallahassee for approval. (All public schools, private schools that accept vouchers and charter schools must present a COVID-19 plan to the state.) That gives parents and students about two weeks to make some plans once the state makes a decision. Woltanski said she plans to reach out to the state capitol, as a parent of a senior and freshman, to make another plea: “Can we delay the start of school until Labor day. Is there any flexibility?”
In all likelihood, education in Monroe County — at least some aspect of it, at some point during the school year — is likely to be online. The most optimistic take on this scenario is that students and parents have a choice; especially if they are older, self-directed students capable of navigating online classes.
‘Regular’ virtual school
If Keys schools must close again, as they did this past spring, each school will be offering its own design of virtual instruction. But better. In fact, it will closely resemble option 3.
According to Kristen Condella, Monroe County School District’s virtual education administrator, the district’s curriculum is all mapped out for a full-time virtual curriculum if needed — a combination of live lessons and independent lessons.
“What happened last spring in the emergency virtual setting was amazing. We flipped everything in two weeks. Teachers were trained in four days before we went live,” Condella said.
If virtual school is necessary, Condella said, “Just like last year, there will be plenty of grace and understanding while still upholding the state standards for opportunity and rigor. We are a high-performing district and we need to make sure students are prepared for the workforce and college.”
If virtual school is necessary, because of the spread of COVID-19, Marathon High School students, for example, will be taught online by Marathon High School’s teachers.
Florida Virtual School
Florida Virtual School (FLVS) essentially operates as its own district. It is the virtual school that most Keys parents are familiar with, as their children enroll part-time either to accelerate their learning (graduate early) or take classes that may not be offered at their particular school (for example, AP calculus).
There is no deadline to apply for the fall semester and students can transfer any time. Students can take up to three classes (called flex time) per semester. Or, they can enroll full-time. If they enroll full-time they are withdrawing from the Monroe County School District.
The instruction method doesn’t vary from option 3, but the interactions between student and teacher does. None of the teachers are in-county and, typically, teachers can have charge of more than 100 students.
Sharon Ward of Key West said her daughter has taken Florida Virtual School classes. “It’s just like regular school; some great teachers, some not,” Ward said. “My daughter took AP calc on FLVS and said it was one of her best classes in high school.”
Katie Leigh’s son, a rising seventh grader, is currently involved in a FLVS class. She said her son completes about two lessons per week, does assessments online and also talks to the teacher who reaffirms the student knows the course material.
“This (FLVS) has been around for a long time, so they don’t have to scramble to get it right. It’s not taxing like the Zoom schooling method,” she said.
FLVS is, of course, very screen-oriented. Students must be self-directed and able to meet various deadlines. Daniel Samess, a parent of elementary age children in Marathon, said FLVS can’t replace face-to-face instruction. “Not a fan, my girls maintained but made no real progress. And, for working parents, good luck.”
In FLVS school, students can work at their own pace. Condella said she’s seen students complete coursework in half the time and other students who needed a few weeks beyond the semester to finish.
Monroe Virtual School
This option works like FLVS, but students stay “in” the county and receive a diploma from the school district. That means the student can also participate in extracurriculars like sports or drama. (That also means that the money allotted to each student will remain in the local district budget.)
In 2019, 313 students took part in Monroe (County) Virtual School (MCVS): some were full-time students, some doing “recovery” classes, some were taking just one class, and some were homeschooled students. Like FLVS, it’s self-paced, so kids can finish early or take their time to complete coursework. The deadline to apply for MVS is Sept. 10; the timeline will keep students apace with the other students in Monroe County.
Monroe County, like about half the counties in Florida, contracts with the Northeast Florida Educational Consortium to provide courses for kindergarten through 12th grade. Monroe County Virtual School actually uses four different providers to make up a student schedule, according to Condella. Classes designed by FLVS are recommended for AP classes and other high school curriculum; K-12 classes are best for elementary-age students; Apex Learning are for specialized courses ranging from intensive reading to creative writing; and Edmentum offerings are typically core classes for older students.
Students must comply with all the testing ordered by the state. The schedules are designed by Monroe County School District personnel and it starts with a phone call.
“We like to have that conversation with the parent and the student before we enroll them,” said Condella. “We need to understand if they are just hoping to complete the coursework to graduate, or if they are interested in college classes.”
Condella said district staff regularly checks in with students. “Students aren’t just calling a hotline. They are getting me or their teacher or a counselor dedicated to virtual students,” she said.
One benefit to MVS over the state model is that students find it easier to transfer back into “regular” school if they choose. Condella said staff can make sure their work is counted. Another benefit is that the teachers of MVS are employees of the Keys district for the most part, and held accountable. In highly specialized courses, however, where a Monroe student may be the only Keys person registered, the instruction could “piggy back” with another county’s teacher.
What’s for 2020?
Condella said that after the spring semester of virtual classes for district students, she expects interest to rise in the more established versions of FLVS and MVS as well.
“Regardless of the COVID-19 situation, I think more families are going to be seeking this out,” she said. “We are prepared at the district and global level.”
Virtual school isn’t for everybody, however. In a recent district survey, only 13% of parents believed screen school to be the best choice. For the parents of young children who need to work outside the home, it’s nigh to impossible.
“Virtual school requires students to work independently and understand when work is due,” Condella said.
For more information about virtual schools, call 305-293-1400, X 53408 or visit keysschools.com and type “monroe virtual school” in the search box.