PITTSFIELD — The School Committee has voted in favor of opening a stand-alone virtual school with capacity for over 300 students next school year, but, because of budgetary considerations, it offered only a one-year commitment to the program.
The idea of offering an all-online school program in Pittsfield dates to last summer, when districts across the state developed virtual school options for students during the coronavirus pandemic.
Pittsfield Public Schools launched the all-online Pittsfield Public Virtual Academy, which accepted students in kindergarten through 12th grade, with a focus on medically vulnerable children, led by Principal Carl Tillona.
The offering was popular, according to feedback from a group of parents whose children were enrolled in the program, School Committee member William Cameron said at a recent public meeting, and they asked school leaders to retain such a pandemic-era offering.
This spring, Pittsfield joined several other school districts in submitting a summary description of its plan for creating a stand-alone online public school, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Other districts included Brockton and Springfield.
Last month, School Committee members, including Mayor Linda Tyer, expressed support for the idea of retaining a virtual program next school year but voiced concerns about the price tag. The committee last month asked Superintendent Joseph Curtis to present several virtual school options, then, at its June 23 meeting, voted unanimously to officially move forward and open a virtual K-12 school with capacity for about 324 students for the 2021-2022 school year only.
That is less than the nearly 540 students who were enrolled in the virtual academy at the end of this school year. Tillona said there were 120 students on a waitlist for the virtual academy, while about 340 more students took part in a separate remote learning offering through their bricks-and-mortar schools this past school year.
Curtis said the virtual school model selected by the School Committee will cost about $3 million for the 2021-2022 school year. Members voted to cover the expense with one-time federal coronavirus relief money to the district.
For now, the School Committee is backing only a one-year commitment to the virtual school, while members and Curtis expressed concerns that the district would be unable to afford the offering after the federal aid sunsets.
Because the district faces assorted “financial pressures,” Cameron said any attempt to fund the virtual school out of the district’s budget would “result in a financial train wreck.”
Member Dan Elias asked whether the idea of creating a regional multidistrict virtual school is realistic, and whether such a setup could be self-sustaining financially.
“It certainly is a possibility,” Curtis said. “The one year [virtual school that the committee approved] would give us time to explore those possibilities, and to explore being a collaborative, multidistrict online school.”
This regional approach would require buy-ins from other Berkshire school districts and a separate application with the state, he said.
School Committee member Alison McGee brought up the issue of whether students in the virtual school will have the ability to socialize in unstructured settings.
“There’s some really valuable social skills that come from interacting in that less-structured environment,” McGee said, noting the importance of routine activities like interacting with peers at lunch and transitioning in the hallways.
“Those are skills they will need when they do enter the real world as well.”
Tillona said students who require socialization support have the opportunity to meet with a student adjustment counselor in small group settings, or one-on-one.
“The feedback that I’ve received from parents is that in some cases, this has been even a greater advantage for those students, in terms of the small groups and the one-on-one,” he said.
Chairwoman Katherine Yon framed the virtual school discussion through the lens of providing an equitable education to all students.
“We’re talking about equity in education, and this just seems to me, when you listen to those parents” the virtual school “is providing something to them that they really need, and it has been successful. You hate to take it away,” she said.
Cameron stressed to parents that, as it stands, the virtual school will only be offered next school year, and not beyond.
“We have to be sure that people enrolling their children in this program know that this will not be continued, that there is no plan to continue this beyond the coming school year,” he said.