While many students thrive in an in-person school environment, Hall County Schools has found, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, that others flourish taking classes online.
In fall 2021, the district will start its Virtual Program of Choice for third through 12th graders, which offers a fully online option.
Scott Tipton, director of the new program, said the decision to offer this alternative was inspired by the small percentage of students who seemed to prosper in virtual learning. He explained that their success was exhibited in different ways, including better grades and overall comfort levels. In some cases, he said virtual learning worked for families’ lifestyles, including those limiting contact during the pandemic.
“There is a certain segment of society that it fits well with,” Tipton said. “For some, they can actually do better in this online environment. They feel comfortable, and they can still build relationships with their teachers and other students.”
The program was unanimously approved by Hall’s school board on Feb. 22. Before placing a vote, board Vice Chair Nath Morris expressed some hesitancy with the program. He said, while he found the option important, he was worried the community would see it as an option to “keep people from having to be around others during the pandemic.”
“I’d love to know what the demand would be,” Morris said during the February meeting. “I’m hesitant but will move forward with this for the community and be on top of hearing feedback.”
Students have until the end of Monday, April 19, to apply. Tipton said the school system plans to send out acceptance notices by Monday, May 3.
Eligible students must obtain a 2.5 or higher unweighted GPA, have access to internet and have a caregiver at home, who will commit to offering assistance when needed. Students must not be failing any courses on their transcript and must have demonstrated success in a virtual environment. A satisfactory behavior and attendance record is also required. Each student will have to commit to a year in the program.
Virtual Program of Choice
What: Online program for third through 12th graders in Hall County Schools
Application deadline: Monday, April 19To apply: hallco.org/web/hcsd-virtual-program
Application forms and eligibility requirements can be found at hallco.org/web/hcsd-virtual-program.
Since opening applications the day before spring break, Tipton said around 180 students have turned in their forms for the program. He added that it will have a maximum capacity of 700 students. The district currently has around 27,000 enrolled in its school system.
Tipton explained that this new option is strictly a program offered through the district and students will still be members of their home-base schools. He noted that this offering will become the only online choice for the entire district next school year, so students won’t be able to opt in and out of the program mid-school year, nor have a blended learning experience.
“We’re sending out new messages to let them (families) know there is no other virtual option except this one,” Tipton said.
Laurie Ecke, Hall’s director of innovative and advanced programs, said students who choose the virtual-only option would be required to attend regular live sessions with their teachers, at least once a week.
“It’s not, ‘Hey, sign up for this and you can spend every day at your job and do this at night,’” she added. “For the live meetings, the teacher will be there, classmates will be there, and they’ll have direct instruction or some learning activities that occur live in real-time.”
Ecke described the program as a more structured version of the past year’s online offering through Canvas, a virtual learning management program.
“Even the Canvas courses will have a lot of similarities, we’ll still have options for creativity for teachers,” Ecke said. “But, we want students to be able to look at their Canvas classroom and understand exactly that each one is following some of the same structures. It’ll be more intuitive for them as they’re managing time in their schedule.”
During the pandemic, Ecke said the district realized asking teachers to teach both virtually and in-person was not sustainable and a lot for the instructors to manage. When the new program is launched, she said in-person teachers will not be expected to offer a virtual option, and virtual teachers will primarily teach online. The district intends to recruit existing teachers for the new program.
Tipton said the course offerings will be more limited than what’s presented to in-person students. For example, band will not be available in the virtual program, nor will be specific career, technical and agricultural education classes. Students participating in the program, however, can still be dual-enrolled students.
Tipton said the district may be able to add more options if enough students sign up for a particular class. The final course list for the program has not been confirmed yet.
“As we start looking at what the kids are singing up for, we’ll make those determinations,” he said. “There’s no hard number (yet).”
For more information about Hall’s Virtual Program of Choice, visit hallco.org/web/hcsd-virtual-program.