CHEYENNE – Ten days into Cheyenne Virtual School’s inaugural school year, teachers, students and administrators are still finding their rhythm.
“We have had a few glitches with the virtual school, but we’re working through that,” Laramie County School District 1 Superintendent Boyd Brown told the LCSD1 Board of Trustees at a hybrid virtual/in-person meeting Wednesday night.
Staffing has been one of the biggest challenges so far, and part of the problem lies with the unexpected popularity of the virtual school.
After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced all in-person instruction to move online last spring, district officials spent the summer strategizing how to navigate the 2020-21 school year, which kicked off Aug. 31. Part of that strategy included standing up the Cheyenne Virtual School, which is an entirely online district-run K-12 school.
An initial survey sent out to families over the summer showed that about 600 to 800 students were interested in enrolling in the school. The deadline to enroll was Aug. 10, and around that time, about 1,600 students had enrolled. However, the district allowed students to enroll after that deadline to accommodate families making last-minute choices about how to educate their children during the pandemic.
As of Wednesday evening, the district reported a total enrollment of 1,926 – 948 elementary school students and 978 secondary school students – for Cheyenne Virtual School. According to Steve Newton, director of instruction for the district, those numbers make the virtual school the largest school in Wyoming – with double the enrollment of the statewide Wyoming Virtual Academy.
“The enrollment is constantly changing,” Newton said. “When we first staffed the school, we had two teachers per grade level, but now we have between five and six per grade level. Getting those kids (who enrolled past the deadline) not only enrolled and set up is taking a little bit longer than those who said they wanted to enroll in early August.”
Newton said that all teachers in grades K-8 are in place. With the high school grades, where most of the teachers are also teaching several sections of in-person courses, almost all of the sections are in place – but not all.
“Students are certainly enrolled in K-12 and connected with the (online learning) platform, but the ability for teachers to connect with them in the secondary grades, we’re at the mercy of finding stray sections to help them out.”
Newton said that Edgenuity, the educational learning company the district has contracted to carry out online learning, has had some hang-ups, but because of the high volume of online learners across the country this year, fixes aren’t always “as easy as clicking a button.”
“There are still some issues for those who are still enrolling. If you enroll today, we likely won’t have you set up for business tomorrow because we want to do this right,” Newton added.
“How fluid is our situation right now?” Trustee Nate Breen asked, referring to the fluctuating number of students enrolling in the virtual school.
“It’s fluid in a couple of ways,” Newton said. “In these times where we have to be fiscally responsible, we cannot, in good conscience, teach a section with six kids in it. The idea of collapsing sections in order to free up teachers – we move the teachers where the kids are. I’m sure that is a bit frustrating, but it’s inevitable.”
Once families get settled in during the first nine weeks of school, Newton said they’ll try to mitigate some of the fluidity by holding firm on the idea that students must stay in their chosen learning environment for at least a quarter or semester.
“How did it shake out for honors classes in the virtual school?” Rose Anne Million Rinne, vice chair of the board, asked Newton.
“There could be some frustration that a specific class is offered at a brick-and-mortar school that isn’t offered online, but I think, by-and-large, it’s very comparable,” Newton said. “We have kids enrolled in Advanced Placement and honors courses, anything other than that would be a very specific situation.”
Trustee Rich Wiederspahn asked if Cheyenne Virtual School Principal Lana Haffner, who was hired for the position less than two months ago, has any additional administrative support to run the school.
“At this time, she is the only administrator,” Newton said, adding that some district-level administrators have provided some additional support as needed. “I called her before coming to this meeting, and she said, ‘It’s going even better now than it was this morning.’”
“I just want to make sure we don’t burn (her) out and find that she’s running down the street with her hair on fire wondering why she took this job,” Wiederspahn said. “I would hate for her to get burned out, because I don’t think anyone anticipated 2,000 students enrolling.”