There will be a full-time virtual school option for Montgomery County students next academic year, mainly for families with lingering health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic and high school students who need more flexible schedules.

The “virtual academy” will be a yearlong, all-virtual option available to students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, MCPS said during a school board committee meeting on Thursday.

Students who apply and are accepted into the program will remain enrolled as students at their “home schools,” but will take all of their classes online. Students will be allowed to participate in in-person sports and extracurricular activities, and receive meals, at their home schools.

MCPS is still working to determine what criteria students might need to meet to be accepted into the fully virtual model. But the parameters are likely to be more rigid for elementary school students, according to Kara Trenkamp, director of MCPS’ Department of Technology Integration and Support.

“The idea for our youngest learners is that you’re in brick and mortar, because that’s where we feel we can serve you best,” Trenkamp said. “We really want our elementary and middle school kids in school, but with that said, we know that we will have families that require a virtual option for health reasons for the child, or for the family in general. We also know we have other extenuating circumstances.”

High school students will have more leniency and acceptable reasons to opt in to the program, including needing to work during the day or care for family members.

MCPS plans to release a survey next week to determine how many students and families might be interested in the all-virtual option. Families’ answers to that survey will not be an official commitment to the program, but will help the district continue its planning. Registration is expected to officially open in May.

MCPS officials said on Thursday it’s not yet clear if there will be one overarching virtual academy for the entire district, or if there will be several smaller regional models. That will depend on the level of interest from families, Trenkamp said.

The virtual academy was derived from the long-term need for some students to take classes from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, MCPS staff members on Thursday were adamant that the concept would be “very different” than virtual classes students have taken this academic year.

There will be staff members dedicated to the online program, rather than splitting attention between students in person and on the computer, and teachers will not be forced to participate, Trenkamp said. Funding for additional employees will largely be provided through grants.

Online students might have a different curriculum designed for virtual classes.

Elementary and middle school students will have full days of live instruction.

There will be three blocks for high school students: morning, afternoon or evening. The morning session is expected to run from about 7:45 a.m. to noon; the afternoon session from about noon to 3:45 p.m.; and evening from 6 to 9:30 p.m.

High school classes will likely have more time for “asynchronous,” or self-paced, work, though there will be live instruction, too, Trenkamp said.

Parameters for how to measure and track student attendance have not yet been set, but Trenkamp said each schedule would meet state requirements for the number of days and hours of instruction students must receive in an academic year.

MCPS employees encouraged students who want to participate in specialized programs, like magnet programs, to apply for those in-person programs.

School board member Karla Silvestre said she hopes that people do not use the all-virtual option solely because “they’re afraid to go back in person.”

Instead, she said she hopes the option is used by people who can’t feasibly make in-person classes work.

A sample elementary school virtual academy schedule.
A sample high school virtual academy schedule.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com