Virtual Academies: South Carolina’s Strategy for Success

virtual academies
(Image credit: Image by Arthur Bowers from Pixabay)

South Carolina recently approved virtual learning programs for 47 of its school districts. Though some of these virtual academies were formed in response to the pandemic, all are designed to serve select students within each district who will continue to attend school online after the pandemic is over. 

"While all South Carolina schools are rightly prioritizing full, in-person instruction this upcoming school year, we know families in some communities were able to successfully navigate virtual learning and would like the option to continue," said State Board of Education Chair Dr. Kristi Woodall in a statement. "The districts whose programs were approved have demonstrated that they are able to meet the high expectations that we have set for virtual instruction and student participation."

Virtual Academies Can Only Serve Select Students 

Currently, South Carolina caps enrollment within these virtual academies at 5 percent of the district’s student population. 

For Greenville County Schools that translates to about 3,600 students who can enroll in the district’s virtual academy without the district losing state funding, says Jeff McCoy, associate superintendent for academics. Approximately 3,000 students are presently enrolled but there has been a great deal of last-minute interest due to the surge in COVID cases due to the Delta variant of the coronavirus. McCoy says if student demand is there this year, they would be unlikely to turn students away and would instead make up the lost funding in another way. 

However, once COVID is no longer a threat, the district expects enrollment to decline. “We anticipated we’d have somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 kids that would do it,” he says. “We really don't expect in the long term that we would hit that 3,600 mark.” 

Engagement is Key at Virtual Academies  

Engagement and building relationships between educators and students is vital for all education but can take more work in an online setting, says Emily McQuay, director of Fort Mill Virtual Academy. “The secret is still making sure you make those strong connections with your kids, and just having that caring relationship, so kids want to get up every day and learn and grow,” she says. 

To keep up that engagement, McQuay says educators need to be proactive in connecting with families and making sure to follow up with students who are not participating. “It's much easier in virtual for someone to go MIA,” she says. “From the start, you have to set that expectation that you're still logging on every day, you're still present every day. If you're not present, just like in person, we're going to be calling, we're going to be emailing, and if we haven't seen you for two or three days, we're going to come to your house and check on you to make sure you're okay.” 

Virtual school works best for students who enjoy some independence and can keep track of their own time and schoolwork. At Greenville County Schools, if a student struggles in the virtual setting, educators will have a conversation with parents urging them to return the student to brick-and-mortar school. 

“In the future, we'll have a little bit more leeway outside of COVID to really say, 'This is not working for your child. We're going to move him back to brick and mortar.' We don't feel like we can do that currently, just because there's no vaccine for the younger kids yet,” McCoy says. 

Implementing Technology Properly at Virtual Academies is Important  

South Carolina has partnered with Discovery Education, which provides standards-based digital learning resources, as well as several LMS providers for both its traditional brick-and-mortar schools and virtual academies. The state requires that at least 25 percent of the instruction at virtual academies must be through synchronous instruction opportunities. 

Whether teaching synchronously or asynchronously, it’s important to keep lessons short. While there are requirements for how much time teachers must spend on certain subjects, they can break up that time how they choose. 

McCoy says his teachers found that short lessons, mixed in with group and individual work, were even more beneficial online than in person. “If they've got 25 kids in the classroom and they've got an hour for that class, they don't have to teach all 25 kids at one time,” McCoy says. “We saw a lot of small groups where they would teach the lesson to 5,7, 8, 10 kids. So we found some successes in those kinds of instructional strategies, which allowed us to individualize instruction in smaller groups.” 

Correction: Aug. 19, 2021 -- The original version of this article misstated the current number of virtual learning programs approved in South Carolina. There are 47 not 34. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.