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Mackey: State seeking virtual K-12 option for fall

By MARY SELL and TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama State Department of Education is planning a statewide virtual learning option for K-12 students whose parents may not want them to return to traditional classrooms this fall. The online platform will also be an option should school systems have to close their physical doors again.

“If we have some periodic, episodic closures in the fall or spring of next year, we’ll be better prepared,” State Superintendent Eric Mackey this week told Alabama Daily News this week.

The department last week issued a request for proposals for vendors “to provide and manage a comprehensive statewide K-12 virtual school for the students of the State of Alabama…” 

Another option in the RFP allows for the purchase of K-12 course content that meets all the standards of the state’s courses of study and can be accessed by students remotely. 

The requests are due back to ALSDE June 5. The department wants the virtual option available to families in August. 

The coronavirus caused public school campuses statewide to close in mid-March and move to remote learning options. Individual systems were responsible for delivering instruction to students during that time. 

Mackey said the statewide virtual school would standardize learning across the state, but could also be customized by systems.

“We put the RFP out for one kind of product statewide so that if you were a third-grader in Vestavia or Mobile, it would look the same,” Mackey said. “Now, (systems) may also do other things, too. So, you know, Vestavia may add some things to theirs or Mobile may add some things, too. That may look different, but the platform would be the same wherever you were in the state.”

As of Thursday morning, there had been more than 16,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases in Alabama since March, nearly one-third of those have been confirmed in the past two weeks, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. 

The state’s most recent public health order allows schools to reopen campuses in June to a limited amount of older students.

Mackey said the virtual system is a school choice measure for families. 

“Some of the details are going to have to be worked out as to the local school districts,” Mackey said. “We don’t want to compete on their territory. So they’re going to have to think about how they want to set it up so students will still be enrolled in a local school system. This will just be a virtual option. But we hear from parents every day whose students are immune deficient or immunocompromised, or in some cases, you know, the parent may be immunocompromised and they’re worried about seeing their children in school and bringing it back.”

An Option for Staying Home

A poll by USA Today this week found that a third of parents with at least one child in grades K-12 said they are “very likely” to pursue at-home learning options this fall.

“We have several superintendents who have received calls from parents asking will they be allowed to start the school year in the same way they closed the year, with their children at home,” Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of State Superintendents of Alabama, told ADN on Wednesday. 

A state-funded virtual platform would help address student needs across the state, he said.

“(When) you consider how we had to finish this school year and anticipate issues with next school year and beyond, you quickly realize the many differences from one district to another,” Hollingsworth said.

He said superintendents would like to see the flexibility in a virtual system to assign and enroll students at various points during the school term and based upon course standards.

Meanwhile, the delivery of the virtual instruction continues to be a huge concern as many parts of the state struggle with dependable internet connectivity at home, he said.

“If it is available in the neighborhood, is it actually in the household?” Hollingsworth said. “If not, can we use a hotspot to get connectivity? We still have several spots across the state with no cell service.”

A lack of statewide access to broadband Internet has been highlighted by the coronavirus crisis, including challenges of educating students in homes without connections.

Gov. Kay Ivey and state lawmakers this month allocated from $1.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief money $300 million for technology and infrastructure expenses related to remote learning.

Virtual options exist

A handful of Alabama school systems already have virtual options for students, including Eufaula and Chickasaw systems, which partner with the virtual curriculum provider K12 Inc. 

Limestone County and Athens City schools also offer virtual classes.

Athens Superintendent Trey Holladay on Wednesday said Athens Renaissance School has enrolled 190 new students for the upcoming year, bringing total enrollment to about 700. Most of those students have a “blended” curriculum that includes some traditional coursework, Holladay said.

He said the state department’s effort for a statewide virtual program is a prudent move to help systems across the state.

Holladay said national statistics show 10% to 20% of students won’t return to traditional classrooms in the fall.

“I think that’s going to be right on the money,” he said. 

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