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Dear Decaturish – Decatur Virtual Academy creates new opportunities

COVID-19 Decatur

Dear Decaturish – Decatur Virtual Academy creates new opportunities

Image obtained via City Schools of Decatur

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Dear Decaturish,

In 2013, CSD included a “Decatur Online Academy” requirement to its charter as part of the charter’s “Essential Innovate Features” section.

Eight years and one pandemic later, CSD is taking the first step to fulfill that requirement by opening the “Decatur Virtual Academy” (DVA) in August of 2021.  You can watch the April 14, 2021, DVA Information session here for more information.

Parents have until April 25, 2021, to indicate their interest in attending the DVA for at least the first 12 weeks of the next school year (through October 29), or for the entire academic year.  If you are waiting to vaccinate your student before they return to in person learning, you may want to complete that interest form.

Today, 45% of City Schools of Decatur students remain virtual (2,586 students) – by parental or student choice.  There are no restrictions on the number of students allowed to return to CSD buildings at this time. All 2,586 of those students or their parents, chose the virtual option for reasons that matter personally to their family.

Some families choose to remain in a virtual setting until their student can be vaccinated against COVID-19. Some families simply did not want to deal with yet another change in their student’s academic life.  Other families have found that virtual actually works best for their student. We do not know how many of these 2,586 students remain virtual for any one of these reasons, nor for any other reason, because CSD did not ask parents why they chose to remain virtual.

If it’s possible to put the current pandemic out of our minds for a few minutes, consider the opportunity we have to reimagine education in our district, by finally establishing the DVA to best support any student who needs a more flexible and creative educational option.

The city of Decatur is home to an estimated 25,696 people, as of 2019, all in a 4.45 square mile area. That’s 5,774 people per square mile, which makes Decatur the densest city in the state of Georgia. With 5,635 students in 4.45 square miles, and neighborhood schools we can walk to when needed, we have the density, the resources and the strength of community to establish an exemplary model of virtual education.

The DVA, coupled with in person options when needed, can provide the best of both learning models. “Virtual” school does not mean only virtual. As Dr. Kristy Beam explained on April 14, the DVA will be the main learning mode during the school day, but it’s not the entire model.

Virtual students will still be part of team sports, band, clubs, field trips and the entire CSD community. Some subjects will also be taught in person when necessary.  For families with students in travel sports, competitive dance, gymnastics, and many other after school activities, the DVA will provide the flexibility currently missing from their lives while maintaining connections with the larger CSD community.

Over time, if we get it right, a portion of our budget could be filled in by out of district students paying to attend the DVA.

Our budget can be further improved by reducing infrastructure costs: fewer trailers, fewer (or no), new costly building additions, and possibly even fewer buildings to maintain in the long run, without changing the neighborhood school character. We have an opportunity not just to transform our schools, but to also strengthen our community and families due to the increased interactions of parents, students and educators which a virtual model will require.

Based on conversations I’ve had with parents, for every student who struggled at home during the pandemic due to reduced social interaction, there is another student whose anxiety has been significantly reduced or completely eliminated and for whom there are fewer learning distractions, less social pressure and more time and space to learn and grow.  Isn’t that the goal for our students?

For parents of neurodiverse students, it is absolutely cruel to insist that their child conform to an outdated belief in the assumed benefits of daily, stressful, and anxiety inducing social interactions if that model doesn’t work for their student. In some cases, a student may feel even more isolated in a school building than at home. We can change this. There was never one single model of positive mental health, not before COVID-19, nor will there be after COVID-19.  There is no longer any excuse to avoid exploring alternative models of student interactions and mental health.  With fiber optic connections and powerful computers in our pockets, no one should be tethered to a building for basic education if they can learn just as well – or better – in a place of their choosing.

Current CSD data on which students remain virtual offers insight into the unmet need of a permanent, quality, virtual education option.  While we don’t know the exact reasons for the latest choices, there are patterns in the data to be explored as we build a first class DVA.

In grades 3, 4 and 5, 50% or more of all students remain virtual, by choice. In grades 6, 7 and 8, the trend reverses with 60% or more of all students choosing to return to in person learning.  Most surprising is the high school data. The 10th grade choices are most similar to the middle school grades. But in 11th and 12th grades, 42% to 44% of students and their parents chose to remain virtual for the remainder of this school year.  These numbers have been pretty consistent through all four “Learning Choice Surveys” which CSD conducted, starting in late fall of 2020.

Overall percentage of in person vs virtual students as of April 12, 2021:

Grade PK: 41.3% in person, 56.0% Virtual

Grade K: 53.6% in person, 45.2% virtual
Grade 1: 51.4% in person, 47.5% virtual
Grade 2: 43.1% in person, 56.6% virtual

Grade 3: 47.4% in person, 50.9% virtual
Grade 4: 41.4% in person, 57.2% virtual
Grade 5: 43.0% in person, 55.0% virtual

Grade 6: 61.4% in person, 38.5% virtual
Grade 7: 60.6% in person, 39.3% virtual
Grade 8: 62.9% in person, 37.0% virtual

Grade  9: 57.8% in person, 42.1% virtual
Grade 10: 63.8% in person, 36.1% virtual
Grade 11: 57.4% in person, 42.5% virtual
Grade 12: 56.0% in person, 44.0% virtual

Our lives have changed as a result of this pandemic.  And our lives will continue adjusting to new ways of living and learning as the pandemic ends.  In 2030, our students will face a very different environment than today.  What will matter is flexibility, resilience, the ability to cooperate culturally and creatively with the entire world.  It’s never too early, nor too late to carve a unique path for your student’s future.  An option like the Decatur Virtual Academy gives you the flexibility to meet all of your student’s needs – academic, social, and emotional.

If you are interested in joining the DVA conversation, regardless if you are interested in a virtual option in the waning days of the pandemic, or wish to lay the foundation for the next generation of learning, you can email Dr. Kristy Beam at [email protected] or you can join a growing group of parents and teachers working to shape the DVA by visiting https://www.dvaptso.org where you can find the data discussed in this opinion piece and join the mailing list.

– Derrick Peavy

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