Local families look to homeschooling as virtual options become unavailable

Education

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — As the number of COVID-19 cases rise across Virginia and children under 12 remain unvaccinated, some parents are walking back on their initial decision to send their students to school for in-person instruction for the 2021-22 academic year. But with selections for virtual or face-to-face learning due earlier this summer, in many cases, students are stuck where they are.

Local residents Mike and Nicole McQuade have a 6-year-old who is set to attend kindergarten in person at Richmond Public Schools (RPS). That was a decision Nicole said she and her husband made in April, before a resurgence in COVID-19 cases across the commonwealth and a reimplementation of mitigation strategies.

“We chose in-person because, at the time, cases were lower and things were looking up,” Nicole said. “We assumed then that if transmission was very high in our locality that RPS would not open fully and that they’d opt for a safer alternative to everyone returning 100% to school.”

According to the Richmond Public Schools website, the default enrollment option for all families in the school division was in-person instruction. The deadline to opt-in to virtual instruction has since passed.

“Somewhere along the line, a law was passed that requires schools to offer in-person school, and the deadline to switch to virtual school was June 1,” Nicole said. “So now we are basically stuck with in-person school or homeschool.”

An RPS spokesperson told 8News that approximately 2,000 students are enrolled in virtual instruction and 20,000 students are enrolled in face-to-face learning.

When asked at an August RPS School Board meeting whether a switch could be made for parents and guardians who had previously selected remote learning, Superintendent Jason Kamras said that the school division did not have the staffing capabilities to accommodate changes at this point in the year. Families were directed to pursue Virtual Virginia, a free learning service through the Virginia Department of Education.

But when Nicole looked into Virtual Virginia for her son, she said the enrollment was full.

Michelle Hudacsko, Chief of Staff at Richmond Public Schools said there is a waitlist for families who originally chose in-person learning but are looking to make the switch to virtual. She also said that families can express their interest in Virtual Virginia through RPS’ waitlist.

Chesterfield County Public Schools and Hanover County Public Schools are offering waitlists in such circumstances, as well. However, with all of these school divisions, there is no guarantee that a family will get off the waitlist and into the virtual learning environment they are seeking.

“The decision was made before the Delta variant was taking over, and cases were dropping and people were being vaccinated,” Mike said. “We get why people have to have their sons and daughters in school, and I think if they were more flexible with the virtual learning, it would not only help people in our situation, but people in their situation, as well, to keep case loads down.”

Nicole said that if it weren’t for renewed concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, she and her husband would not be considering homeschool as an option for their son, who is an only child.

“We’ve been very careful for 18 months,” she said. “But that means that he doesn’t have as many playdates as he should or interactions with kids his age, so that’s something that needs to happen at some point. It’s unfortunate that it seems like now it’s happening when things are worse than they have ever been.”

Just a few weeks out from the first day of school, the McQuades remain on the fence about what to do. Although they said they understand the staffing restrictions to expanding virtual learning options, they also expressed their wishes to have a school setup for the 2021-22 academic year that would adjust depending on the health climate.

“Just make a plan based on what the numbers are doing in the community at the time,” Nicole said.

Hudacsko said that RPS has seen an uptick in homeschooling inquiries. She attributed that to a number of factors, including parents and guardians who don’t want the health risk of having their children physically in school, but are also concerned about the amount of screen time that remote students had during the previous academic year.

Superintendent Kamras sent out an RPS Direct notice Tuesday evening noting that families interested in homeschooling should complete this form and email Valenta Wade. These students would be allowed to return to their RPS school at any time.

But in the Hopewell City Public Schools division, an additional virtual learning option launched Tuesday to account for the increased number of families inquiring about remote instruction options, given the recent rise in COVID-19 cases throughout the commonwealth. As of Aug. 23, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Dr. Jay McClain reported that 644 of the division’s approximately 3,900 students are enrolled in virtual learning.

While Hanover County Public Schools did not detail the number of students participating in various types of instruction, a spokesperson for the division told 8News that roughly 97% of students will attend in-person instruction, with the other 3% attending virtually.

Petersburg City Public Schools did not offer a virtual option for its students. Families seeking such a learning environment were given the opportunity to apply to the state-run Virtual Virginia.

Chesterfield County Public Schools has 1,838 students enrolled in its Virtual Learning Academy, according to a division spokesperson.

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