Bright and early August 11, 2021, Fauquier County Public Schools reopened its doors to five days a week of in-person learning. While thousands of students returned back to their schools, others logged on to the newly-launched FCPS Virtual Academy.
In March of 2020, COVID hit, shifting learning online nearly overnight. Zoom, webcams, synchronous, and asynchronous all became part of the daily routine. Students and teachers alike couldn’t wait to get back to the good old days of face-to-face learning. But for some, the virtual setting was right where they needed to be.
While face-to-face, in-person instruction is best for most of our students, we realize it is not best for all. Some students thrive in a virtual learning environment and can benefit from a stand-alone virtual program.
FCPS Superintendent David Jeck advocates for giving each student what they need in order to succeed. “If we truly believe that kids learn differently, then we need to continue to provide opportunities tailored to meet their needs. The Virtual Academy is a great example,” Jeck said.
The FCPS Virtual Academy serves as another personalized learning path to provide an engaging, student-centered alternative learning experience where traditional barriers of time, place, and availability are removed.
We’ve found over the past two years that many students thrive in a virtual environment, so providing this program helps accomplish the goal of providing equitable instruction for students.” ~ David Jeck
This year, the over 170 students who chose Virtual Academy learned from a cadre of 9 full-time and 12 part-time teachers. With a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning throughout the school day, students accessed their instruction through Canvas and Google Meet.
Opening the academy wasn’t without its challenges. Just ask Virtual Academy Coordinator Mike Snell. Previously a third and fifth-grade teacher at Grace Miller Elementary School, Snell began his new role on July 6, just over a month before opening day. The framework for the academy had already been established, but Snell had to assemble a team of high-caliber teachers and find students who were the “right fit” for virtual learning.
Students weren’t the only ones to prefer a virtual environment. When teachers were forced to move instruction online in 2020, some teachers thrived and found ways to continue to build relationships with students and make learning meaningful. Snell and teachers point out that Virtual Academy educators intentionally engage and connect to students.
Mark Frazier, a teacher at FCPS Virtual Academy, explains how he connects with his students. “The really cool part of virtual teaching is we get to connect with students in completely new ways we never imagined.”
He gets to know their pets’ names, sees siblings he taught in prior years, or meets extended family members. He forms an even more personal connection than he would have had in the traditional classroom.
The virtual environment is not for everyone; however, for the right student, the right teacher, and the right subject, it is awesome!” ~ Mark Frazier
Teacher Brittany Del Rocco knows the importance of building rapport with her students.
“I try to bring up things I know they are into or that I know they are doing. For example, I knew I had a few students celebrating Lunar New Year last month, so I asked them to share about the ways they are celebrating, if their families were making any particular foods, etc.,” Del Rocco said.
Del Rocco engages students virtually by using VR 360 videos in her geography class. Students have explored Cichen Itza and ‘dive’ a cenote in Mexico, taken a boat ride down the Amazon River and enjoyed views from the Alps in virtual reality.
Teacher Steve Bucher believes virtual learning actually enhances engagement for many students, especially those who find the traditional brick and mortar school environment to be intimidating and/or distracting.
“Being able to monitor student online work in real-time permits more expansive opportunities for individual instruction and personalized tutoring,” said Bucher. “Enhanced engagement for students creates a learning environment that is inherently more meaningful. This enables the traditional classroom experience to become something much more akin to seminar.“
Teacher Sandra Albertson encourages her students to talk with each other and with her during class.
“When presenting new material, I present math problems and work them out while asking individual students what I am doing and how do I do it,” Albertson said. “Work is completed during our class time so that they can talk with each other, help each other and confirm with each other that they understand the material. I am there to guide and coach them to understand math their way.”
Each Virtual Academy student has their own unique story.
Michelle Brady’s three children have been enrolled in Fauquier County’s Virtual Academy for the 2021-2022 school year.
“My son has despised math for a long time and has a lot of anxiety when it comes to school. Mr. Hanzivasilis went out of his way to make sure that my son received the time and attention he needed,” Brady said. “He even scheduled multiple meetings with my son and me to go over lessons my son found confusing, as well as teaching me concepts so I could help at home.”
Brady reports that her son is now excelling in math.
I know this is a privilege to have a virtual school within our county. I’m so grateful to what Dr. Jeck, Mr. Snell, the teachers of Fauquier County, and the school board have done to help the families of Fauquier County, and I hope to see Virtual Academy as an option for the next school year.” ~ Michelle Brady
So what’s the future of the FCPS Virtual Academy? That all depends on our students’ needs.
The Virtual Academy is planning and preparing for the 2022-2023 school year. The application window will be open to all students on March 1, and it will stay open until May 1. The student application will be on our website, and we will hold our student & parent interviews in May. Please visit the Virtual Academy website at bit.ly/FCPS1Virtual for more information.