Virtual learning

Pittsfield's Virtual Academy received registration forms for 259 students for the 2021-2022 school year. The academy capped enrollment at 324 students for this year. 

PITTSFIELD — The city’s virtual public school is poised to enroll 259 students across grades K-12, 65 students under enrollment caps created by the School Committee in June.

Registration for the Pittsfield Public Schools Virtual Academy closed Aug. 4.

Principal Carl Tillona said that the academy registered about 110 elementary students, 70 middle school students and 80 high school students. The academy was created last year to support students concerned about attending brick-and-mortar schools due to the pandemic.

The Pittsfield Public School Committee voted to continue the PVA on June 23, allocating about $3 million out of $13 million in state-allocated Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III money the district received for the 2021-2022 school year. These funds are intended to help sustain “safe operations” of schools during the pandemic.

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Use of the money for the academy, instead of a teacher salary increase, resulted in a breakdown in contract talks between the local teachers’ union — the United Educators of Pittsfield — and the district in June.

The district plans to use the $3 million to hire 14 teachers, 10 support teachers and seven administrative employees to staff the program. Last year, the school hired 40 full-time employees at a cost of $3.7 million.

The district asked families with children who enroll to commit to virtual learning, removing the choice of opting in or out over the course of the year.

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Tillona called last year “resoundingly positive.”

“We’re connecting with kids because of COVID or for whatever reason this year who aren’t able to walk into a brick-and-mortar school and to serve these students is really our passion,” he said.

Tillona said staff still are verifying registration forms to make sure there are no duplicates in this year’s enrollment numbers.

Enrollment would be down from last year, when the program had 272 elementary students, 144 middle school students and 127 high school students.

Enrollment last year fluctuated between 530 to 600 students, as families opted in and out of the program as the coronavirus pandemic progressed.

District officials didn’t know what to expect for enrollment this year. Tillona and Superintendent Joe Curtis presented four models of varying sizes to School Committee members during the panel’s meeting in June.

The most expensive was a $7 million program able to handle 400 to 500 K-12 students. The least expensive was a $2.7 million model big enough for 249 K-8 students.

Committee members said that by selecting a model that caps enrollment at 324 students, they sought the most cost-effective option still able to provide a robust education.

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com

or 413-496-6149.