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School board members are asking for more details before they vote on whether or not to designate Moore County Schools’ new virtual academy as an independent school for the upcoming year.

District staff were evaluating demand for a fully-virtual school and exploring the offerings of other districts in 2018 and 2019, before anyone had heard of COVID-19. Their nascent planning was put to a trial by fire last spring, when schools abruptly closed to students as the pandemic spread.

“The pandemic and the shutdown accelerated all of our planning and all of our logistics greatly,” Steve Johnson, Moore County Schools’ assistant director for technology, told the board. “It added fuel to the fire, moving virtual on a dime like that.”

But after a year of refinement and getting teachers up to speed, school staff are proposing to convert the Connect Virtual Academy into a permanent institution serving students from kindergarten through high school.

“Families in the community are asking for the option and it’s an awesome choice for highly motivated students who can learn independently and desire flexible scheduling,” said Mike Metcalf, the district’s executive officer for academics and student support services.

“We believe it would be a competitive option for homeschool families and may positively impact our student enrollment numbers.”

The virtual academy currently enrolls about 2,200 students. That came down from about 3,500 during the fall semester after the district gave families the option to return to in-person learning after the winter break.

Currently its students are still technically enrolled at the physical campus they’d be attending based on their residence district, though in some cases they’re attending virtual classes of students blended from different schools to balance out uneven enrollment from different areas.

If the school board endorses the shift to a standalone school, students will be enrolled in the virtual academy alone. That transition will also come with a principal, paid by the state, and a “largely self-contained” staff.

As proposed, the new school’s administrators would work out of the Community Learning Center in Carthage while teachers would work from home.

“What we’re hearing now from our partners across the state is that many districts plan to continue their virtual schools that they’ve started as a result of the pandemic,” Metcalf said. “This is not going to be as unique as it was when we started planning this.”

But some school board members aren’t satisfied with the level of information provided on how the school would be funded moving forward, what would happen if enrollment falls too low to sustain, or how it would offer things like physical education and school lunches long-term.

“Have we done any surveys to actually gauge what the strong demand would be outside of COVID?” asked board member David Hensley, who suggested that the district might be better off marketing its hybrid “Blend+ed” program to homeschoolers.

“If we’re going to use this as a mechanism to get additional state funding during the pandemic or to perhaps put order to it, I’m all for it, but I’m concerned about the long-term viability and that this just becomes a future expense without justification.”

The school would continue to receive funding for the school’s principal as long as it enrolls at least 100 students and qualifies for at least seven state-funded teachers. Superintendent Bob Grimesey said that, should the school be forced to close due to low enrollment, its teachers could fill open positions elsewhere in the district.

At this point school staff are comfortably projecting that the virtual academy might retain 30 percent of its current enrollment even once all schools are fully reopened after the pandemic.

“This adds to our market share relative to homeschooling,” said Grimesey. “Most of the students that we would see here would be students who have parents who don't have an ideological reason for homeschooling, they have a lot of other reasons, they’re looking for a curriculum anyhow, and we’re offering a curriculum.”

While board member Bob Levy said that he’s supportive of the virtual academy continuing, he’s concerned that setting it apart as an independent school might limit the district’s flexibility in staffing it.

“We’re not going to be able to flex our existing teachers into part virtual and part face-to-face (teaching). It also very much concerns me that we’re going to be creating a brand-new bureaucracy and a brand-new school but not expanding our student population,” he said.

“I don’t want to throw cold water on this necessarily, but I want to know where we’re going before we start a brand-new school.”

Levy also asked for a more thorough breakdown of where the funding for school-level staff like guidance counselors might come from when the board revisits the issue this week.

Board chair Libby Carter echoed concerns that the virtual school might draw smaller enrollment at each grade level, and that the district would thereby have to devote a teacher to very small classes.

“As an educator, and as someone who wants everybody to come to Moore County Schools, I see it as a great outreach that provides a chance to bring some of these folks back in,” she said. “On the other hand, we don’t know what kind of numbers we might have and the grade breakdown of children.”

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