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York County school districts consider making virtual learning options permanent beyond pandemic

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
Stellar Fitness offers space for safe independent virtual learning, while giving students a break from isolation, at the fitness center in Springettsbury Township.

As state officials continue to push schools to reopen for more in-person instruction, several York County districts are considering keeping virtual learning as a permanent option for students. 

At least three local school districts are planning to keep remote learning models that were introduced because of the COVID-19 pandemic as permanent options next year. Most of the details have not been solidified yet, but district officials said the options are meant to provide students and their districts more flexibility. 

Dallastown Area School District Superintendent Joshua Doll previously told The York Dispatch that he hopes to continue offering virtual learning options next year along with in-person instruction, as many Dallastown students found success with remote learning.

"I don't think we're ever returning to normal," he said.  

At West Shore School District, in response to feedback from families that wanted more learning options, the district launched a virtual learning academy, ExCEL, according to a district announcement March 18. 

ExCEL will provide daily teacher-led classes in a virtual setting for K-8 students. High school students will have the option to take all of their courses virtually or follow a blended schedule of virtual learning and traditional face-to-face class time. The online academy will also provide access to special education, counseling and other services available at West Shore buildings, with no added cost. 

Other districts, including the York City School District, introduced online academies this year in an attempt to compete with cyber charter schools, which saw statewide enrollment increases by about 20,000 students in the last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More:Charter enrollment in Pa. has spiked since COVID-19 outbreak

The Spring Grove Area School District already had a virtual academy that was implemented about five years ago, according to Superintendent George Ioannidis. However, the district is considering other virtual options to offer next year for students and staff members who can't make it to school buildings. 

Spring Grove officials have not settled on a specific model yet, but Ioannidis said the virtual option will resemble a more traditional classroom setting compared with the online academy, with more teacher-student interaction. Unlike the online academy, which is a learning option students can follow all year, the new virtual option would be offered temporarily on a case-by-case basis. 

The model is intended for students or staff who cannot make it to school buildings for any reason, and can be accessed for any length of time depending on how long it's necessary, Ioannidis said. That would prevent students or staff from missing out on school days and allow entire school buildings to close but still operate when needed, he said.

"We want to have that flexibility," Ioannidis said. 

Earlier this week, state Rep. Stan Saylor threatened to cut funding for schools that do not open for fully in-person learning in the next school year. Ioannidis said he was unconcerned by the threat and said it does not have much impact on the conversations about future virtual learning.

More:State Rep. Stan Saylor says he'll try to block state funding for schools that don't fully open

Though Spring Grove staff and students got acquainted with virtual learning during this school year, Ioannidis said all district schools have been open for in-person instruction five days a week since the beginning of the year, barring the occasional temporary closure resulting from high numbers of COVID-19 cases. Dallastown and West Shore schools are also open to students four or five days per week, depending on grade level.