Students in Chesapeake’s specialized programs push district for online option

As Chesapeake Public Schools works to figure out what the fall will look like, some

As Chesapeake Public Schools works to figure out what the fall will look like, some students said one provision in the city’s reopening plan effectively forced them to return to the classroom.

They started an online petition that garnered hundreds of signatures this week, met with principals, program coordinators and top district officials in zoom calls and made an appearance on the local NPR affiliate.

On Friday, the school district said it is adjusting the language shared on a return-to-school plan for high school students enrolled in programs like International Baccalaureate at Oscar Smith, Governor’s STEM Academy at Grassfield and the Science and Medicine Academy at Deep Creek.

At first, students and families were told they’d need to choose the in-person option to remain enrolled.

But in interviews, the district says those students will be allowed to remain in their academies without losing a spot if they choose to learn online while administrators explore options for exactly how academy work will be offered online for those who choose that option. Some 720 students are enrolled across the three programs, which emphasize hands-on learning and more technical work in the classroom.

The issue started gathering attention July 13 in a forum on the return-to-school plan. During the video, Nancy Sweat, director of instructional resources, services and technologies, answered a question about the district’s academies and whether academy students can take courses through the all-online option, dubbed Chesapeake Online.

“Unfortunately, due to the heavy reliance of hands on-instruction and specialized software, students in academy programs will need to select option 1 to remain enrolled in their academy classes,” Sweat said.

Option 1 is called the on-campus continuum. Depending on the rate of coronavirus cases, it calls for students to be in the classroom five days a week or a blended model of two days in class and three at home. If rates are high, students and teachers would pivot to a temporary online model.

The city School Board is expected to Monday on where on the spectrum students will start come the fall. Surrounding districts, meanwhile, including Norfolk and Virginia Beach, have opted for all-virtual starts to the year.

Sheli Porter, the director of secondary teaching and learning, said in an interview Friday that the district has changed the language and is encouraging students to choose option 1. Students won’t lose their spot and or have to re-apply to their academy if they choose the online option.

Porter said for those who choose the all-online start to the year, the district will work with them to make sure each student doesn’t miss out on coursework.

“It becomes very personalized as it needs to,” Porter said.

She said students were encouraged to choose the in-person option because the academies are specialized and classes are scheduled in limited blocks. If half the students chose online that means a teacher would have double the work. The district only have so many qualified teachers who can teach around the schedule.

Porter reiterated, though, for students who choose online, the district is going to work with them. She plans to meet again with the students from the International Baccalaureate program next Wednesday along with Stephen Chamberlain, the eLearning coordinator, to discuss solutions to offer the program online.

One idea that was floated was to record teacher’s lessons and upload the video online.

“I don’t want a student to feel unsafe or unsettled,” Porter said. “We are going to work with them with the choice they decide.”

Many of the IB classrooms don’t have windows and are poorly ventilated. Students worried that those who were not comfortable with the in-person option due to the rising number of coronavirus cases might fall behind and not be able to catch up if they couldn’t take the course online in the fall.

Aria Lovelace, a rising junior in the IB program, said she learns better in person and will likely choose the on-campus option. But she only feels safe doing so if there’s an online option offered because that means more students will be at home — IB classes tend to be 30 kids to a classroom.

Others in the program might feel compelled to learn in the classroom because they’ve worked so hard for it and don’t want to risk falling behind.

“We’re determined to put our health at risk for it and that shouldn’t be the case,” Lovelace said.

Her classmate, Kavin Jayaraman, also a junior in IB, says he’s been diligent about social distancing, following stay-at-home guidelines.

“If they’re going to have us all go to school, they should have it as a risk-free environment,” Jayaraman said. “When the risk still exists, we should be able to consider the risk.”

Jayaraman, Lovelace and two others, Jenna Boccher and Aaliyah Freeman, met with Porter on Thursday and came out feeling better about the fall. They’ll be closely watching how the school board votes Monday and then anticipate discussing specifics with the district more Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes,” Lovelace said. “This is a constantly changing situation. We are grateful that it is because a lot of people are working hard to make sure the IB program is benefited and given its full attention.”

Gordon Rago, 757-446-2601, gordon.rago@pilotonline.com

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