Of Alabama’s 138 school districts, most have laid out their plans for the start of the school year. All of the systems in our area are offering virtual learning as an option for students. To handle the tremendous demand, Baldwin County schools are hiring more teachers and expanding its virtual campuses.
Baldwin County Virtual School has seen steady growth since its pilot program was launched in 2013. By 2016, 80 students had enrolled, and the school operated out of a rent-free building on Faulkner State University’s Fairhope campus. Since then, the program has achieved excellence, last year receiving the only “A” report card rating in the state. In the midst of the COVID pandemic, Virtual School enrollment has jumped from less than 300 last year to around 3,000 already this year.
Gulf Shores in now entering its second year with virtual school. This will be the first year either system has offered it for grades K through 6. Baldwin County Schools superintendent, Eddie Tyler wants families to think seriously about it before signing up.
“This is real-world school. It’s just virtually so parents need to understand, if we make that decision and my child and me or my husband have to be dedicated to this because you will be graded,” Tyler said. “Your absences will be graded. You’re expected to make sure you’re staying in touch with teachers.”
The biggest difference between Baldwin County Schools and Gulf Shores Schools is accountability where it comes to testing. In Baldwin County, Students will have to go to a physical location for supervised testing while in Gulf Shores, students will be allowed to test remotely.
“We’re going to make that optional,” said Gulf Shores superintendent, Dr. Matt Akin. “We prefer that students come in and test but we have lock-down bowsers so they can test at home because we understand the worries around COVID.”
School officials have been clear that students attending traditional school run the risk of encountering the COVID-19 virus. For those still on the fence about the online curriculum and if it’s right for you, here’s what some virtual school students said in 2016 when asked how the program suited them.
“There’s a lot of structure to it but there’s also enough freedom to where I can get some other things done that I need or I can focus on certain academic topics that I don’t understand of blow through the ones that I do so I create the environment that I need to be in to learn,” one said.
“Time management is a big, big thing here that you don’t really have at a brick and mortar school, that you have to make your day. You have to make it. You don’t get told how to do it,” another student explained.
Baldwin County will be using Access Virtual Learning for grades 7 through 12 and Google Classroom for elementary students. Right now, it’s advertising for 50 new, elementary virtual school teaching positions, and that number may grow. As for students, there is no maximum enrollment, but that could change.
“When you start manning students, personnel costs, because when you get personnel, you don’t just pay a salary. You pay salary and benefits, so right now, we haven’t set a limit. As Superintendent, do I have to monitor that and possibly make a decision one day? Possibly, but not right now,” Tyler said.
Baldwin County parent have until August 10, 2020 to register for virtual school. Once school starts, they’ll just have until the end of August to switch to traditional school if they feel they made the wrong decision.