Liz McCormick Published

From WiFi Hotspots To Video Classrooms: Tackling Virtual School In A Pandemic

About 50,000 children so far in West Virginia have signed up for virtual schooling in fall 2020.

Across West Virginia, families have been promised the option of virtual schooling in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And many families are considering it for fall 2020. About 50,000 children so far in West Virginia have already signed up for virtual school, according to the West Virginia Department of Education.

All 55 of West Virginia’s counties must offer at least one virtual school option, as mandated by Gov. Jim Justice.

Counties can choose to offer West Virginia Virtual School from the West Virginia Department of Education, or a local option structured by that county, or some combination. And in some counties, students will have to stick with their virtual program for a set amount of time.

“Google Classroom allowed for us to be successful during the springtime, at least to get everybody on the same platform. So, we are going to use that for this coming school year,” said Jennifer Rowan, director of technology for Jefferson County Schools, in a Zoom meeting with about 500 student family members last week.

Rowan showed parents in Jefferson County how to use Google Classroom – one of the programs Jefferson County Schools uses for its virtual school called Jefferson Virtual Academy. The public meeting, held by the Jefferson County Board of Education, was aimed to help families, curious about virtual schooling, understand what it would be like.

Jefferson County uses Google Classroom to organize and deliver classes and assignments. Students can type out questions and comments with teachers and classmates in real time. It’s also where they submit work for teachers to grade.

The county also uses an online program called Microsoft Teams, which allows for video conference calls during virtual class. These will also be recorded and available to students if they aren’t able to join when class meets.

Rowan noted that in Jefferson County, lessons will be synced up as close as possible in both virtual and in-person classes. This is in the event school must go entirely virtual because of virus outbreaks.

“It has never been more important than now to adhere to those pacing guides,” Rowan said. “So that if we have to go into a quarantine period, [in-person students] are now at the same type of pace as the Virtual Academy students.”

The county is also committed to providing personal electronic devices, such as iPads, to every student who needs one.

But families in Jefferson County must choose now if they want to go virtual or attend in-person scenarios. The deadline to choose the virtual option is Aug. 19.

If a student in Jefferson County who signed up for in-person schooling decides they want to change to virtual school, they’ll have the option to switch at the end of the fall semester.

Jefferson County’s Virtual Academy is just one example of what virtual schooling might look like this fall in West Virginia. Each county will vary.

Regardless, if parents want their child in virtual school, they have that choice.

“We will have total optionality,” said Justice in a recent virtual press conference. “If you feel like your child should not be in the school, then we’re going to make that child’s education, along with all the children’s education that choose not to come to the schools, virtual, and we will absolutely deliver a quality education to them for the time period that they’ve decided not to come to the school.”

One way Justice is hoping to make virtual school easier for families who choose it is through a broadband expansion initiative called Kids Connect, which is expected to go live by Sept. 8.

According to the governor’s office, 40 percent of West Virginians have access to broadband, so the hotspots will be crucial if virtual school is to be successful.

Justice has committed $6 million to Kids Connect. It creates just a little more than 1,000 WiFi hotspots, spread out across the state in all 55 counties. The project was a collaboration of the governor’s office, the West Virginia Department of Education and the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

These hotspots will be available in parking lots of all K-12 schools, which totals to 688 sites. 32 higher education institutions will offer hotspots, 255 libraries, and 31 of West Virginia’s state parks.

Students will also have access to school buses that will drive them to these hotspots so they can complete their work.

Sarah Armstrong Tucker, who serves as chancellor of both the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and the Community and Technical College System, recently spoke about the initiative at an informal, informational meeting with the House Education Committee in Charleston.

“I think it’s going to make a significant difference,” Tucker said. “If we have to go to a virtual environment, or even a partially virtual environment, our students will know where they can go so that they can connect to the internet.”

The hotspots will also be available to higher education students.

West Virginia’s Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch echoed Tucker at the education meeting but said it’s only the first step into a much larger broadband issue in West Virginia.

“I appreciate the 1,000 points of WiFi that we’re targeting,” Burch said. “I think it’s a great project, but it is a Band-Aid.”

Virtual school this fall will be available to all students in West Virginia, from kindergarten to 12th grade.

School is set to begin in West Virginia on Sept. 8.