The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

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June 19, 2024

Recently released report raises questions about effectiveness of MCPS virtual academy

The report, which MCPS officials released to the public nine months after its completion, concluded that virtual instruction in the Academy may result in worse academic outcomes than in-person learning, particularly for younger students.

In December, 2023, a report examining the effectiveness of the first-year implementation of the MCPS Virtual Academy was published online by the Office of Shared Accountability, an MCPS department responsible for data analysis. The report, which MCPS officials released to the public nine months after its completion, concluded that virtual instruction in the Academy may result in worse academic outcomes than in-person learning, particularly for younger students.

Established in 2021 as schools re-opened for in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Virtual Academy offers a permanent virtual learning option for students who either prefer or need digital classrooms. Its opening at the time mirrored similar academies’ from other school systems who also sought to provide services to families with members at high risk for severe COVID. The MVA is distinct from MCPS’ Interim Instructional Services program, which serves students with physical or emotional conditions that temporarily prevent them from attending school in person.

In March 2023, OSA finalized a report of the first-year implementation of the MVA and circulated it to select officials internally. Using a combination of data points including attendance rates, test scores and survey findings, OSA concluded that virtual learning may have produced worse outcomes than in-person education for elementary-age students, while the achievement levels of middle and high school students were shown to be similar to their in-person peers. The report recommended that MCPS officials consider these differences in educational outcomes when considering the future of the Virtual Academy.

As a recommendation, the authors concluded that MCPS should “balance community desire for a virtual educational option with consideration that in-person instruction may yield better outcomes than virtual instruction – particularly for elementary students.”

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The academic and attendance data consolidated in the report provide a window into the MVA’s challenges. For elementary school students, in-person students were more likely to meet projected reading and math growth levels than MVA students. The most significant difference was among third graders — 36.2% of MVA third graders met their projected math growth, in comparison to 59.7% of their in-person peers. In middle and high schools, reading and math performance were similar between the two groups.

The MVA elementary school also had a lower rate of attendance than in-person schools and a higher rate of chronic absenteeism. The most significant difference in attendance levels was in second grade — 26.1% of MVA second graders were chronically absent, in comparison to 12.4% of in-person second graders. Attendance levels were similar between in-person and MVA middle and high school students. 

According to the MVA Lower School Dean Cassandra Heifetz, it took some time to develop mechanisms to effectively enforce attendance in a virtual environment in which students can leave school without passing through an office.  Since the school’s first year, school administrators have continued to implement new attendance strategies, she said.

“We had so many students, and everything was just so new,” Heifetz said. “So from year one to year two, there was significant work put into building those teams, the well-being team and the student attendance monitoring teams to make sure that our teachers and staff knew how to handle the complexities of taking attendance in the virtual setting.”

The report included demographic as well as academic data for the Academy. Data showed that for all grade levels, the race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status of students enrolled in the Academy differed on average from MCPS demographics. 47.4% of MVA high school students received free and reduced-price meals, compared to 36.5% of the MCPS student population overall. Additionally, 36.5% of MVA high school students identify as Black/African American, compared to 21.8% of the MCPS high school population overall.

Although finalized in March 2023, the report wasn’t made public on the MCPS website until December, nine months later. Jennifer Reesman, a pediatric neurologist who works with MCPS students, says she began looking for data on the Academy’s success when families asked her whether it might be the right fit for their student. In September 2023, she contacted MCPS requesting OSA’s report on the MVA, and officials confirmed they had not yet published it. After an exchange, they sent Reesman the final public link in December, The Black & White confirmed.

“If you’re going to invest money and time and energy and people to do the complicated statistical analysis and put together lovely graphs and charts, you should share this information widely,” Reesman said.

In the period between MCPS officials finalizing the report and releasing it publicly, applications for the following year’s MVA opened and closed. The lack of comprehensive public data on the Academy was frustrating for students deciding whether to apply, Reesman said. However, according to Heifetz, the Academy has gone through such robust changes since OSA collected the data that it was no longer fully representative of the experience, she said.

An MCPS parent provided The Black & White with enrollment data for the Academy that was originally obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request. In 2021-22, 2,629 students enrolled in the Academy, a figure that dropped significantly the following year to 1,565 students. In the current 2023-2024 school year, 878 students are enrolled in the Academy.

Local pediatrician Lavanya Sithanandam has worked with multiple patients enrolled in the Academy, and expressed concerns regarding the emotional and physical health of students engaged in full-time virtual learning. She worries that virtual learning doesn’t afford teachers the opportunity to monitor students’ well-being in the same way they do at in-person school. Given these concerns, she suggested a more limited online program for students with extenuating circumstances or illness, such as the Interim Instructional Services program, which serves to provide short-term out-of-school instruction to students who need it.

“​MCPS should really evaluate whether they need such an extensive program, especially for younger students, and whether this should be reserved more as a pre-COVID type program for kids with health issues or very special circumstances where they absolutely cannot be in in-person learning,” Sithanandam said.

On Dec. 14, 2023, former superintendent Dr. Monifa McKnight released the $3.3 billion MCPS operating budget for fiscal year 2025. The proposed budget included $4,258,415 of funding for the MVA, an increase of $976,763 from FY 2024. However, $724,027 of this increased commitment is due to the expiration of MVA funding from the third and final phase of a COVID-era grant known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund (ESSER), which provided funding to public schools for relief from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. While overall funding for the Academy has decreased due to the expiring ESSER funds, MCPS contributions have increased from FY 24 to FY 25. MCPS budgeted $25.6 million of ESSR funds to the MVA over the last three years.

On Feb. 12, MCPS officials informed the community of a follow-up budget meeting in which they will consider making modifications to or eliminating three programs, including the Virtual Academy. The public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 20, 2024, at 6:00 p.m..

The MVA’s Parent Teacher Council started a petition this week to support the program. As of Friday afternoon, the petition has 967 signatures. In advance of the meeting, Heifetz wants to tell families that she believes the Virtual Academy serves a subsect of the community successfully and is important to maintain. 

“It’s not for every kid, it’s not for every family, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it shouldn’t be for any kid or for any family,” Heifetz said. “In a school system that is committed to student success, having virtual learning as an option for students is potentially one way to make sure that each student can find what they need.”

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About the Contributor
Rebecca Waldman
Rebecca Waldman, Opinion Writer
Grade 11 Why did you join The B&W? I wanted to report on the issues that impact our community and write stories that make a difference. What is your favorite board game? Clue

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    Judd TruckingstonFeb 27, 2024 at 12:28 pm

    Thank you for your reporting on this topic. Having a voice and it being powerful is very important and can change the world.