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Volusia County Schools will continue to offer virtual alternatives to in-person schooling, instead of shutting them down as planned.

A Florida Department of Education emergency order allows schools to continue offering “innovative learning modalities,” like Volusia Live, through summer 2021, in light of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

Volusia County Schools offers two distance-learning options.
Volusia Live allows students to follow along from home with teachers live through a structured school day.
Volusia Online Learning is a self-paced online option.
Volusia Live was created as an option for students due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while Volusia Online Learning existed before, but has been expanded as the program’s enrollment ballooned because of the pandemic.
Volusia Online Learning will continue to be an option for students after the pandemic, but Volusia Live’s fate was in question prior to the emergency order’s extension.
For budgeting purposes, students enrolled in Volusia Live are considered full-time students and the district receives the same amount of funding for them as for students enrolled in brick-and-mortar classes.
The district receives less money for Volusia Online Learning enrollees.

For some parents, concerns about their children’s safety have made distance-learning options offered by the school district good alternatives to traditional, in-person classes.

Now that the programs will be continued past their original Jan. 22 expiration date, some, like mother Elizabeth Atlee Hall, said they can breathe a sigh of relief.

Hall has three children — two in elementary school at Ivy Hawn Charter School in Lake Helen, and one at Deltona High School.

All three are enrolled in distance-learning programs. Hall had been worried that the programs would not be extended into the spring.

Hall said, given her and her husband’s current work-from-home situations, and their worries about COVID-19, distance learning has worked well for their family.

“My dad stays with us from time to time, and he’s 83. I don’t want anything to happen to him,” Hall told The Beacon. “The fact that we can stay home, it probably makes it a little safer for the other kids that have to go to school, as well.”

Brigitte Couture, another Volusia County mother, agreed.

“We’re trying to limit exposure as much as we can,” she said.

Her son, Sean Gaudreault, is a junior at DeLand High School, and he has been enrolled in Volusia Live since the school year started. He is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program. Online learning makes it possible.

“We’re out-of-zone, so there’s no transportation. We have to get up super early, so it saves us a lot of travel time,” Couture said. “He gets more sleep, and it’s a lot more convenient.”

INTERNATIONALLY DISTANCED — Sean Gaudreault, pictured, is enrolled in DeLand High School’s International Baccalaureate program. His mother, Brigitte Couture, said the program has worked out well for her son. Before the announcement that Volusia Live would be continued through the spring, Couture said, the family considered taking Gaudreault out of the IB program, but with the online program, he is required to go to school in person only to take big exams like the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT.

Her husband has decreased lung capacity, she said, so family members have been doing their part to keep COVID-19 exposures to a minimum.

The number of students using Volusia County’s distance-learning programs has been decreasing since the start of the school year, as students have steadily trickled back into traditional classes.

Volusia County Schools spokeswoman Cynthia Lane told The Beacon some 12,000 students who began the school year in virtual programs have returned to in-person schooling.

“We’re seeing most of our movement out of virtual and into traditional. Now that they’ve [parents] seen what the schools are doing, they feel comfortable,” she said. “All of us, in our everyday life, we weren’t doing things in April that we’re doing now. We’ve learned to navigate this new normal.”

A districtwide mask mandate requires students to wear masks on campuses, and classrooms are equipped with hand sanitizer, for example. Students are also required to stay home for 10 days if they come into contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19, or test positive themselves.

On Sept. 28, 15,069 students were enrolled in Volusia Live, and 8,038 were enrolled in Volusia Online Learning. As of Dec. 4, according to Lane, 8,891 students were enrolled in Volusia Live, and 6,138 in Volusia Online Learning.

Learning from home

To continue offering distance learning, the school district must submit a plan to the Department of Education detailing how the district will handle students who have too many absences and failing grades.

As the next semester begins, the programs will largely remain the same, while still working to ensure that students are succeeding in the programs they’re enrolled in.

“For us, it’s just a continuation of what we’re doing,” Lane said. “We do believe face-to-face interaction provides the best opportunity for teachers to support struggling students, but we are reasonable people, and we recognize there are circumstances that require the family to keep the student in distance learning.”

In September, the school district began contacting distance learning students with D or F grades, asking that they return to brick-and-mortar classes. At one point, more than 34 percent of middle-schoolers enrolled in Volusia Live had one or two D’s or F’s. As of Nov. 2, that percentage has dropped to 24.

High-schoolers with one or two D’s or F’s went from 30 percent at the end of September to 19 percent in early November.

Part of the improvement came from Volusia Live students returning to in-person classes, according to Lane.

Volusia County School Board Member Ruben Colón said he appreciates the additional flexibility provided by the emergency order.

“As we navigate this pandemic, ensuring that families have options that best suit their students was important to me, while ensuring they are successful,” he told The Beacon. “All of these elements were included in this order, of which I am grateful.”

This school year has been contentious when it comes to the district’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have been critical of how the district reports positive COVID-19 cases, while others have been critical of the districtwide mask mandate.

But the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across Volusia County, and some parents welcome the ability to keep their children distanced from possible infection as everyone continues to navigate the new normal.

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