NEWLAND — During the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 9, Avery Virtual Academy Principal Dr. Coleman Bailey gave a presentation updating the board on the virtual school’s progress over the past semester.
Joining Bailey in his presentation were a handful of teachers with the virtual academy who were present via Zoom. As part of the update, Bailey presented “the good, the bad and the ugly” about AVA to the board in a show of transparency in order to identify what was working and what can be improved upon.
AVA was implemented at the beginning of the Fall semester and gave students an option to fully enroll in the virtual school in order to avoid contracting COVID-19 or unknowingly bringing the virus home with them and spreading it among family members who could potentially be severely affected by the virus.
Through AVA, each teacher teaches a curriculum, and Zoom class takes place daily while work is assigned and graded. Outside of Zoom sessions, teachers are available via email and over the phone as students need them.
“Our primary purpose is to keep these kids motivated, connected and moving as a virtual educator,” Bailey said. “A good virtual student goes to their Zoom meetings, communicates with teachers, completes work and turns it in, does their own work, checks their virtual classroom pages, seeks help when needed, wears attire acceptable for school when they’re Zooming, takes care of their device and has a good attitude.”
Bailey added that it takes a partnership between the student, the teachers and the student’s family in order successfully educate pupils online. This includes setting up an encouraging environment at home without distractions, as well as a functional internet connection to complete classes and maintain contact with teachers.
As of Feb. 9, the elementary schools in the county have a total of 7.4 teachers and 92 students enrolled in AVA. The middle schools have a total of 2.4 full-time and eight part-time teachers enrolled in AVA, with 85 students, with 41 of those students in seventh grade. Meanwhile, the high school has four teachers who dedicate 80 percent of their time to AVA, and six teachers teach a class with AVA. The high school has a total of 119 students enrolled in AVA.
During a typical day, elementary students spend the first three hours, beginning at 8 a.m., in Zoom meetings, which include math groups, reading groups and interventions. The students then take a 30-minute break to check emails, return phone calls, go to the restroom or have lunch. The next two hours include more live Zoom sessions, which include science, social studies and more interventions. Then remediation groups are conducted, which can include additional one-on-one Zoom sessions. Beginning around 3 p.m., teachers prepare pre-recorded videos and grade student work.
Board member Ruth Shirley asked the teachers present whether they have noticed a correlation between parent support and student success. One teacher said that there is a correlation and that teachers are learning to accommodate students who may not have the right support at home. Bailey elaborated on this effort by the teachers.
“We are open until 9 p.m. in the evenings, and we have a lot of students who take advantage of that. Students can sign up for 30 minutes to an hour, and we (focus) on what students are lacking. Between their individual tutoring and what we do in the evening, we’re probably averaging about 100 kids getting one-on-one support in the virtual program,” Bailey said.
Attendance has also improved for the virtual academy since teachers have switched to counting attendance through live Zoom sessions. Additionally, elementary students are able to participate in online enrichments, which includes pre-recorded physical education lessons, story time with Grandmama Bailey, sessions with historian Michael Hardy, Grandfather Mountain virtual field trips and pre-recorded stories with librarian Ashley McFee.
McFee of Crossnore Elementary gave the update on the good, the bad and the ugly with teaching elementary school students online. She explained the good as being consistency through snow days and quarantine days, attendance, flexibility, being able to recommend failing students to return to face-to-face, supportive principals, students becoming more responsible for their own learning, students becoming more proficient with technology and being able to give star student awards out every two weeks.
As for the bad, McFee said there is a lack of communication, some students don’t have the support at home, some students do not take the remote learning seriously, some students come and go when it comes to attending classes or turning in work and students have limited socialization. The “ugly” portion was described as a lack of parent accountability, and there is a feeling that participants are not part of a school, although McFee added that there is not much in the “ugly” category for elementary school learners.
For middle school students, the day begins at 8 a.m., as teachers contact students about grades and assignments. Teachers also organize lessons at this time. For the next three hours, live content-specific Zoom classes are held. Students and teachers take a break between noon and 1 p.m. to have lunch, check emails or to use the restroom. Zoom sessions continue for the next two-and-a-half hours, in which students can get help with assignments. Teachers can also record lessons, grade assignments or contact the parents and students. From 3 to 5 p.m., Bailey holds a middle school focus session in partnership with Appalachian State University interns. Then from 5 to 9 p.m., tutoring is available for students in the help center.
Among positive characteristics described for the middle school student experience was self-motivated students and students with attentive and present parental guidance are proving to be successful, there is good attendance through Zoom sessions, constant contact with parents keeps all parties in the loop, snow days and Covid quarantines do not affect AVA, flexibility, teachers are able to recommend failing students to return to in-class instruction, supportive principals, students are becoming more responsible for their own learning and more proficient in using technology, there is a new middle school focus time and many students are taking advantage of one-on-one sessions with teachers.
On the flip side of the coin for middle school through AVA, teachers report that it can be difficult to hold students’ attention while discussing difficult material, lesson plans can feel less in-depth, whole class Zoom sessions can be difficult to plan, some students do not have support at home, there is little to no socialization and a sense of apathy develops among some students.
As far as the “ugly” was described, it can be difficult to gauge student mental health, students without school-related parental support are getting behind and need one-on-one sessions and students miss socializing face-to-face with their peers. Additionally, teachers have said that it can be hard to track down students who do not show up for class on a consistent basis.
For AVA high school students, many classes or Zoom sessions occur at the same time or as part of face-to-face classes at the high school. Meanwhile, some classes occur at different times and can involve coaching from a teacher during a resource period.
Aspects of AVA for high school students described as “good” include the fact that AVA students are completing the same type of work as in face-to-face classes, a single teacher can cover multiple subjects, some teachers teach face-to-face and virtual at the same time, concerns from the fall have been addressed, students have the same teacher that they would have if they attended school in-person, students are completing similar assignments as face-to-face peers, transitioning back will be easier and students have high attendance in Zoom sessions.
The less-desirable aspects of AVA for high school students include some students who can use AVA to stay disconnected, the lack of electives could cause issues with pathway selections if students remain virtual, it can be difficult to track down and support students who are having difficulties, and changes in schedules can be difficult when teachers switch between remote and face-to-face. As for the “ugly” qualities, students who need flexibility due to the pandemic or family needs are being stressed due to new expectations were mentioned.
Bailey also provided in his report an update on how exceptional children, or EC students, are fairing with the virtual academy. The report stated that benefits for EC students include a strong partnership with EC teachers and families to help students, some EC students who have trouble with face-to-face instruction due to anxiety are flourishing, modifications with the technology are able to be made to help students with skills deficits, EC students are not singled out or bullied and the EC department has received research-based online solutions to help students.
However, there are some concerns with the online program since there has been a decrease in socialization opportunities for EC students, and teacher caseload has increased which has resulted in less one-on-one time for students.
“We’re noticing that some of our EC students do not have the skill base necessary to really be successful with virtual, and that’s why we’re trying to set up more one-on-one time with them,” Bailey said.
Overall, the virtual school has seen its share of success, but it has also experienced drawbacks due to the nature of instruction over the internet. While Bailey and the teachers with AVA work out the kinks, they continue to trailblaze down a path the school system has never taken before.
“If somebody told me in 1991 that after 30 years I would still be at this and running a virtual school for Avery County in the rural mountains of North Carolina, I’d say you’re crazy,” Bailey said. “We gave you the good, the bad and the ugly. We tried not to sugar coat it. These are words from our teachers. We’ve had a lot of success. For kids who desperately wanted to stay virtual because grandma’s on oxygen or for any of these legitimate reasons, we were able to put these kids on contracts. We have seen big improvement in their behavior.”