Falmouth School Committee on Tuesday, June 8, discussed the possibility of creating a virtual school, but following much deliberation voted to not pursue the program for the coming 2021-2022 school year, citing not enough information or time to proceed.

The virtual school would be created and operated by the Falmouth school district and overseen by the school committee, which would include determining grade levels, curriculum, and capacity.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeffery C. Riley ruled that there would no hybrid learning this coming school year. But school systems, if they wished, could allow students to opt for learning remotely.

The deadline to get an application to DESE was May 6, giving the administration nearly three weeks to learn expectations and create a summary description for submittal. Not wanting to lose the option, the administration presented the application to the school committee on May 4 before submitting it for approval to DESE.

Once submitted, Falmouth administration began surveying families who remained in remote learning throughout the entire year. Superintendent Lori S. Duerr said over 600 surveys sent to families from kindergarten through 12th grade. They included families that choose to home school.

Even after extending the deadline another week in order to gather more responses, the final total of received responses equaled 277, with 39.4 percent saying yes to a virtual school. School Choice students were removed from the pool as they are not eligible to attend a virtual school outside of their residential district.

After removing duplicates and taking into account those who said yes but with extenuating circumstances, such as continued COVID-19 concerns, there were 94 students looking to enroll in a virtual school this coming school year. Dr. Duerr broke down some of the numbers on how classrooms would look based on these numbers.

“I would be interested to have that survey blasted to all students to see if there would be any interest in moving from being back in school to being remote,” said committee member Lisa E. Hart. Ms. Hart, like others on the committee, said 94 students was too small a number to move forward with this large of an investment.

Committee member William Dorfner stated he wished the survey had been expanded beyond a simple yes or no question, allowing for more discussion from families in town on the subject. Mr. Dorfner and Ms. Hart both mentioned the timeline as a major concern.

“We had three kindergarten students, three 1st grade students, and three 2nd grade students. This would be very difficult to offer a virtual option at this grade level,” said Dr. Duerr, who said it would be arduous for an educator to teach across three grade levels within the same classroom.

The remaining data revealed interest in a virtual school from 15 students in the 3rd and 4th grades, 17 students in 5th and 6th grades, 10 students in both 7th and 8th grades, and 52 students in 9th through 12th grades.

“We have a bit of a history in working with and supporting some of these virtual opportunities,” said assistant superintendent Sonia Tellier. ”COViD certainly opened our eyes to some of the other ways to think about it from the perspective of an exclusively virtual education, which is a fit for some.”

Ms. Tellier went on to discuss how the administration looked at the district’s history and student circumstances in considering the virtual school option. There were instances observed during the pandemic that highlighted negatives for some students and benefits for others within Falmouth public schools.

“There is a population of our current student body that would actually benefit from some less traditional and more flexible opportunities such as the virtual school,” said Joan Woodward, Falmouth Public Schools director of Student Services.

Committee member Terri Medeiros, rebutted that idea stating in her opinion virtual schools continue the problem of motivation. She highlighted the outdoor learning tents and conversations she has had with parents as examples of a clear desire to return everyone to in-person learning.

Committee member Leah Palmer, who served in an administrative role at a remote school within the district and has witnessed “remarkable teaching and learning” this past year brought up questions regarding staffing. Ms. Palmer has concerns over financing and filling special education and administrative positions within the virtual school that could potentially pull resources from the in-person schools.

Other concerns included teachers virtual class locations and called for a robust conversation involving the community and stake holders regarding virtual school. Questions were posed regarding special education students having their continued needs met while virtual as well as concerns for the districts experience educating in the virtual world.

In the end, they voted not to pursue the program.

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