Virtual school

Horry County Schools is considering closing its virtual K-12 program in the fall.

Horry County Schools' K-12 virtual program will be dissolved beginning with the 2022-2023 school year, but with the caveat that the district staff bring back a viable option for creating another virtual education option in a year’s time.

“In spite of interventions, changes to the program and the diligent efforts of K-12 HCS Virtual teachers, students in the virtual program are approximately twice as likely to fail one or more classes needed for promotion compared to students in brick-and-mortar classrooms,” said Horry County Schools Chief Officer of Academics Boone Myrick during a presentation on Monday.

The Horry County Board of Education voted 11-1 in favor of dissolving the virtual school at the end of this school year. District 5 board member Howard Barnard cast the dissenting vote.

Before the vote, the board was split down the middle on the first motion to close the virtual school, with board members Russell Freeman (District 1), Tracy Winters (District 3), Howard Barnard (District 5), Neil James (District 10/vice chairman), James Edwards (District 9) and chairman Ken Richardson voting against closing the school.

After changing the motion to keep the virtual school but barring kindergarten through third grades from participating in it, the opposite tie occurred, with Sherrie Todd (District 2), David Cox (District 4), Helen Smith (District 6), Janet Graham (District 7), Melanie Wellons (District 8) and Shanda Allen (District 11) voting against that motion.

The district's virtual program began in August 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) required a virtual option for families in all districts.

Last month, the district’s curriculum committee shared data that showed 42% of the 2,127 HCS Virtual students were failing one or more classes. This included 46% of those in the senior class.

That research was taken from a Dec. 6 report, which upset many parents and teachers who said it wasn’t fair to use that data because the first semester was not technically over until Jan. 13.

“At that point we had been analyzing data for the semester … at the time of the meeting we did not have data for the first semester yet – all of the grades were not finalized,” Myrick said. “We used it as a springboard for discussion.”

Principal Specialist Lee James gave a detailed presentation to the district’s curriculum committee on Monday afternoon, going as far back as the 2018-2019 school year to compare data to pre-pandemic times.

He noted that during the 2020-2021 school year, the SCDE waived the seat time requirement to pass classes, and no failures for excessive absences were issued. That requirement was reinstated for the 2021-2022 school year.

Approximately one-third of the virtual school failures were due to attendance issues, James said.

James said he was thankful for the students’ hard work because the 46% of seniors failing one or more classes had since improved to 41%. He also emphasized that the data shared was not a reflection of the efforts of virtual teachers.

Superintendent Rick Maxey agreed.

“This is not an evaluation or critique of any of our virtual school teachers," he said. "We have phenomenal virtual school teachers."

In the virtual program, at the end of the first semester 41.7% of high school students were failing one or more classes compared to 22.8% of high schoolers in brick-and-mortar schools, according to James.

In middle school grades, 40.1% of virtual middle schoolers were failing one or more classes while only 18.3% of brick-and-mortar students were doing the same.

Elementary school followed the same pattern, with 16.8% of virtual students in grades 3-5 failing math, ELA or both classes while 4.4% were failing in an in-person education setting at the end of first semester.

James said students still have the rest of the school year to improve these grades.

The district’s data, which can be viewed in its entirety below, also compares high school state-mandated final exam scores, middle school MAP testing and i-Ready math scores, and elementary DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) benchmarks.

In kindergarten through second grade’s mid-year DIBELS scores, 45.1% of virtual students in grades K-2 scored in the “well below benchmark” category versus 25.7% of brick-and-mortar students scoring similarly.

James said strategies will be implemented to help these students get back on track.

Some students are successful in their virtual programs, Maxey acknowledged, saying he received numerous emails from those students, their parents and their teachers, but unfortunately the program was not working for everyone.

“We’re at a point now where we need to turn the page … to get our students back to where we know … they will succeed,” Maxey said.

Originally, Myrick gave the committee three options: keep the program as it is; keep the program but with changes to eligibility requirements; or dissolve the program completely.

Monday’s assessment from Myrick was that keeping the program as it is was not a viable option anymore, citing reduced opportunities for hands-on experiences, lack of access to some support services and staffing issues.

Taking away planning periods from teachers so they can go and teach more classes was not ideal, Maxey said.

“Everybody from every spectrum as far as school communities are concerned are stretched and burned out,” Maxey said, adding that the 106 current virtual teachers could be moved to open positions at brick-and-mortar schools for next school year.

If the program stays, Maxey said it would have to be established as another program school with parameters and criteria for admission, including enrollment caps and a year-long commitment.

Maxey is also concerned with the S.C. Read to Succeed Act, which would retain students in the third grade if they have not met certain reading level standards by that point in their education.

“Our second graders — in their kindergarten year in March 2020 — they went home. When you’re a kindergartener, you’re learning some very important skills with reading,” Maxey said. “We’re not reaching everybody but we’re doing a much better job of teaching reading in a face-to-face context.”

Maxey said retention also opens the doorway to the possibility that the student may not graduate.

Curriculum committee chairwoman Sherrie Todd said that when a school’s graduation rate dips below 70%, the SCDE sends interventionists.

“Right now, with our virtual school, they’d be knocking on our door,” Todd said. “That is grim.”

Maxey said that what worked in an emergency setting isn’t going to work in the long term, and that any decision to make the virtual program a permanent program school fixture would require at least a year of planning to do it right.

The K-12 HCS Virtual Program was also duplicating — and spending taxpayer dollars — on what is already offered for free through the state’s virtual charter school, Maxey said.

Vice-chairman Neil James said that he thinks a virtual school in the district will be necessary in the future, noting that he hopes the district will eventually introduce a fully-functional virtual school.

“The pandemic has forever changed our society,” James said. “If Horry County Schools wants to continue to be a premier educational system, I think we have to have options.”

District 7 member Janet Graham concurred.

“We need to give it the time and due diligence it requires so that it can be successful,” Graham said.

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236


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