Newman: ‘Virtual school is here to stay’
By Bobby Bryant, Editor
About 3,000 students in the Darlington County School District are currently enrolled in the district’s Virtual Academy, a full-time, online education program. County Education Superintendent Tim Newman says he’s aware that some of them, and their parents, chose the Virtual Academy because of COVID-19 fears. But what happens after the pandemic is over? “Some type of virtual school is here to stay,” Newman said last week at a work session of the county school board. Discussing the Virtual Academy’s future with the board Feb. 22, Newman estimated that once the pandemic is gone, he might expect the Virtual Academy’s enrollment to decline to about 750 to 1,000. But, he said, he expects it to continue to be a part of the district’s educational system. “There are students that should not be in the Virtual Academy today that are, because their parents have chosen that out of fear,” Newman said. “I don’t think we as a district or you as a board were willing to get in the middle of parents’ thoughts during a pandemic on how they should educate their children.” “But next year is a different situation,” he said. “Next year, we can have some better conversations about expectations and prerequisites and how that program will work.” “For example, if you are a student that was not successful this year in virtual, you are not going to be able to be in the virtual program next year,” Newman said. “That’s just common sense. This year, it’s because of health and because of our parents’ request, and again, I don’t think any of us were comfortable getting in the middle of that. That is a parent’s choice this year.” But next year, he said, if safety is not an issue, a student not successful with the Virtual Academy would not be able to automatically get back into the virtual school. Carla Jefferson, director of the Virtual Academy, told the board: “It has not been perfect. At the beginning of the school year, it was really, really rough. But we are seeing so much growth in our teachers, in our students, in our parents, and in the capacity of what we have been able to do from the beginning.” “This has been the hardest thing any of us have ever done,” Jefferson said of the effort involved in setting up and operating the Virtual Academy. Jefferson told the board about absentee problems among elementary-school students enrolled in the Virtual Academy. She said that about 33 percent of elementary students in the program had missed about 10 days of lessons. Board member Jamie Morphis said he’s concerned about the district trying to operate on two tracks at the same time – online and in-person. “We’ve forced ourselves into a two-school system,” Morphis said, adding that it eventually will hurt traditional education. “Our grades are just tumbling” already, he said.