When COVID-19 caused a worldwide pandemic in 2020, no one ever thought that school buildings across New York state would close. What was known as academic normalcy, and a typical school year changed overnight. Although school buildings were closed, instruction remained a top priority for school districts as teachers adopted new methods of how to creatively deliver instruction to students of all ages. Google Classroom, Zoom, Google Meet, Edpuzzle, Screencastify, Flipgrid and distance learning are just a few methods and strategies that teachers used to connect with students. All of these can be described as online learning.
As the pandemic progressed, teachers and administrators discovered that some students flourished in an online learning environment and, with proper guidance, some students were able to make significant academic gains.
Christopher Harris, Ed.D., oversees a number of programs at Genesee Valley BOCES, including
Model Schools, Library Media Services, Distance Learning, School Library System, and a new program launched in the fall of 2021 called NYVirtual Academy. The NYVirtual Academy was born out of a need to serve this population of students, who for many reasons, thrived in a virtual setting.
“A few years ago, we researched the possibility of creating an online learning program that would focus on college readiness. Many students who live in this region are the first in their families to attend college. Due to fiscal constraints, the small rural school districts in this region, may not have the same college prep courses as larger more affluent suburban school districts,” Harris said. “We wrote a few grant proposals but then COVID-19 hit. This drastically changed our plan and we transitioned to supporting both remote and hybrid learning.”
First, discussions took place that framed out a rough idea of how a virtual academy would operate. As the 2020-2021 school year continued, with many school districts operating in a hybrid model, the need for this program became more evident.
“The concern at that time was that school districts had massive numbers of students who could potentially be enrolled, so we knew that this would not be a good time to launch. We focused on supporting teachers by providing resources and tools that would best meet their immediate needs,” Harris explained.
Throughout that school year, Harris researched and spoke with superintendents on how this concept could work.
“In June and July, we knew that there would be lingering impacts, and discovered that this virtual school concept was definitely a possibility. The Governor and the State Education Department were communicating a ‘return to in-person learning where appropriate,’” Harris said. “We knew that some students would not be able to return to in-person learning for a number of reasons, including health conditions, so we got to work. What made this development process work so well was the support of all the school superintendents in this region.”
The program launched in the fall of 2021 with an enrollment of 60 students. But very quickly in early September registration ballooned to 100 students. As of March 2022, there are 125 students in the NYVirtual Academy.
How it works
NYVirtual Academy is a full-service educational program for students in grades 6-12. The program provides all instructional components for students including core and elective courses to meet all New York State graduation requirements taught by New York State certified teachers. Each day students are expected to spend 4-6 hours at home dedicated to their course work. Students are enrolled in their local districts, however, and should be eligible for sports and other extra-curricular activities. Additionally, it is the local district that grants credit and graduates the student based on recommendations from GV BOCES.
Patrick Whipple, Ph. D. oversees all of the Professional Learning Services (PLS) at GV BOCES. The NYVirtual Academy is part of this department. Whipple described how this new school came to be.
“NYVirtual has its inception tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the late spring of 2020, Dr. Julie Donlon, GV BOCES Deputy Superintendent, presented the Professional Learning Services Department with a challenge-- how can GV BOCES create a service that can meet the demands for virtual learning while taking the burden off of local districts? NY Virtual was the response,” Whipple said. “The PLS Team built the proposal for the program by considering three large, student-focused buckets: effective curriculum, connectedness/mental health, and flexibility. To meet the needs of our districts, the team considered cost-effectiveness and viability as important factors; however, the cost-benefit analysis could not detract from the student-focused nature of the program.”
Whipple also noted how this unique program provides students with a new chance at learning in a protected environment.
“Some students and families are just too anxious to attend in-person school at this time - for various health-related reasons. This is the void that NYVirtual Academy fills. Our NYVirtual Academy staff provide the needed academic, social, and caring support to students who really need it right now. This program dismantles many of the barriers our students would have in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting,” Whipple said. “We focus on the kids by ensuring each student has a moderate group of classmates and a caring adult to interact with through our Advisory Model. These advisors act in a capacity of "school parent" to ensure students feel a sense of connectedness to peers and adults despite attending school from their homes. This important focus creates a warm and welcoming environment that reduces student anxiety, so they can more easily attend to academics.”
Donna McLaughlin is one of the NYVirtual Academy teachers. She applied to teach at this cyber school for many reasons.
“The advisory model was a big part of why I wanted to teach at the NYVirtual Academy. I truly believe in the idea that kids don't care what you know until they know that you care. In my experience, students who feel safe, heard, and valued by their teachers are more motivated and engaged and, therefore, do better academically,” McLaughlin said.
McCarthy teaches a multitude of offerings including English 10, 11, 12, Career English 12, AP English 12 as well as Mythology and Folklore. It would seem that teaching students remotely would be challenging but McLaughlin disagrees.
“Being an online learning specialist provides me with a unique opportunity to work with students from all over New York state rather than just one localized school building/area. I have flexibility with my schedule which allows me to have the freedom and opportunity to meet with students 1:1 whenever they need extra support rather than just during after-school hours,” she explained. “Another positive benefit of this position is that the Edmentum (the curriculum this cyber school follows) modules and assessments are rigorous and help students develop the skills and habits they need to be independent learners beyond high school.”
Harris explained that NYVirtual Academy supports students who each have a unique set of circumstances as to why a traditional school setting is not the best fit. McCarthy agrees.
“I have several students who are facing really difficult, mental/emotional and environmental challenges but are thriving in our program. One student, in particular, is facing a significant number of barriers to success yet she shows up to advisory every morning with a smile and a great attitude,” McCarthy shared. “This student is on pace in all her classes and earning excellent grades despite working 30-40 hours a week to support herself. She has shared with me that having the option to complete her schoolwork when it fits into her schedule has been critical for her success this year.”
What does the future hold?
It is both Harris’ and McCarthy’s hope that this school model continues.
“I think this program is an amazing example of student-centered learning where kids who don't fit into the traditional brick and mortar school are provided the chance to engage in the educational experience in a new way,” McCarthy said. “Kids who have mental/emotional issues that prevent them from being able to focus and engage in a classroom full of students and stimuli are now able to receive a quality education that values, accommodates, and supports their unique health circumstances.”
Harris wholeheartedly agrees.
“Our students are better prepared for their next steps in life. They understand how to work independently, have great time management skills, are able to advocate for themselves when they need help and are able to engage in online learning,” Harris said.
-College and career-ready are common words used to describe how schools are expected to prepare students. The NYVirtual Academy does just that and more by providing a culture that fosters learning and teaches students the necessary skills to prepare them for life.