2021 | Schools

What to know about the MCPS virtual academy

Registration open through July 2

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While Montgomery County Public Schools plans for a return to full-time, in-person classes in the fall, the state’s largest district is also developing a permanent virtual school for students who have prolonged health concerns or thrived while learning from home.

The concept was first announced in April. Registration opened last week and runs through July 2.

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 can participate in in-person sports and extracurricular activities, and receive meals, at their home schools.

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 have been adamant that the concept would be “very different” than virtual classes students have taken this academic year.

Staff members will be dedicated to the online program, rather than splitting attention between students in person and on the computer. Teachers will not be forced to participate, MCPS leaders have said.

Funding for additional employees will largely be provided through grants.

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., according to a presentation to the school board in April.

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

There are more than 161,000 students in MCPS, and the district expects around 3,000 to enroll.

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What is the virtual academy?
The virtual academy, called “Montgomery Virtual,” will be a full-time, all-virtual school, beginning in the fall. The virtual school will be for students with specific health or personal concerns. A return to full-time, in-person school will be the “default” for students unless they choose the academy.

Who can register for the program?
Any student in kindergarten through 12th grade can apply for the virtual academy.

How do families register?
Registration can be completed through ParentVUE, or by emailing the application form to MoCoVirtual@mcpsmd.org. Paper copies of documents can also be dropped off at MCPS central offices, at 850 Hungerford Drive in Rockville between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.

What are the criteria for acceptance?
Students who have documented health problems or whose families have documented health problems related to COVID-19 that would be mitigated by learning virtually will be eligible for the program. Students who prefer and have done better in virtual classes than in-person can be accepted into the program.

High school students who work or take dual enrollment courses can also be accepted into the program.

Originally, when MCPS first announced that registration for Montgomery Virtual was open, it said preference for virtual classes was not a qualifying reason for acceptance, but released a “clarifying” message the next day saying that it is.

Students must also be enrolled in MCPS and maintain a permanent residence in Montgomery County. All students younger than 12 must be supervised during school hours.

What if a family can’t provide documentation of a medical condition?
The application says that documentation of “extenuating circumstances” could include evidence of ongoing treatment from a health care provider, “ that may be significantly impacted by potential exposure to COVID-19 and which could be mitigated by the student’s participation in virtual learning.”

If such documentation is not available, “evidence of such extenuating circumstances may be obtained through consultation with MCPS staff after the application is submitted,” according to the application.

When does registration end?
Registration closes July 2. Acceptance letters are expected to be sent to families in the summer.

Will there be IEP and 504 meetings for students?
For students in special education programs that have an individualized education plan (IEP) or 504 plan, there will be specific meetings to determine if the virtual academy is the right fit. The registration form says the meetings will be to “review, discuss and determine which supports, services and accommodations can be made available in a virtual school.”

Can you enroll in the virtual academy or return to in-person school mid-year?
Enrolling in the virtual academy is expected to be a full-year commitment. However, students who wish to switch back to in-person classes, can request the change at certain points during the academic year.

High school students can request the change at the end of each semester, while elementary and middle school students can make the request at the end of each marking period.

Students can request to transfer into the virtual academy mid-year if they have “serious health concerns,” or are new students enrolling in the district, according to MCPS. Each request will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Will there be a specific curriculum designed for the virtual academy?
In an email to Bethesda Beat on Monday, MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said MCPS has purchased a curriculum specifically designed for virtual classes. The district’s curriculum team is also working on building the curriculum, she wrote. More information was not immediately available.

How will MCPS measure the success of the virtual school and of its students?
MCPS has not yet said publicly how it will measure the success of the program. But it has said there will be constant evaluations.

In April, MCPS leaders said parameters for how to measure and track student attendance had not been set, but every schedule would meet state requirements for the number of days and hours of instruction students must receive in an academic year.

Can virtual academy students do extracurricular activities and get school meals?
Yes. All virtual academy students can still participate in athletics and extracurricular activities, and get meals through their “home” school — the school they would normally attend based on their home address.

Where is funding for the virtual academy coming from? How much does MCPS plan to spend?
MCPS plans to use grants and some of its federal relief funding on the virtual academy. During a recent school board committee meeting, MCPS staff members said the district plans to spend about $3.5 million in a “down payment” to get the program running. The money would cover costs like staffing and technology needs.

Will teachers lead both virtual and in-person classes at the same time?
No. There will be staff members dedicated to the virtual academy full-time.

Does MCPS plan to continue offering Montgomery Virtual after the 2021-22 school year?
District leaders have shown interest in continuing and expanding the program, but it will likely depend on its success in its first year. During recent school board meetings, staff members have said it’s possible the program could expand in future years to include specialty programs that will not be offered in the fall.

Have a question that wasn’t answered here?
Email your question to caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com and include “Virtual Academy” in the subject line. We will try to answer it.