Here’s how to pick an online school next year

South Florida school options are diminishing almost daily. The pressure is mounting on parents to figure out how to make sure their kids get a quality education next year. Palm Beach County schools will likely offer online-only instruction when the school year starts Aug. 10. Miami-Dade schools are also planning […]

South Florida school options are diminishing almost daily. The pressure is mounting on parents to figure out how to make sure their kids get a quality education next year.

Palm Beach County schools will likely offer online-only instruction when the school year starts Aug. 10. Miami-Dade schools are also planning virtual-only learning to open the school year Aug. 24. Broward will make a decision on how to open schools in the coming weeks.

So what else is out there? There are private schools, some of which already have announced they will reopen for in-person classes, and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

Then there are the public online schools that have been around for years, including Florida Virtual School and county-run virtual schools.

Decisions must be made soon. Some county virtual schools want applications by next week, while Florida Virtual’s deadline is July 31.

Here’s a primer of how each online school will work.

Florida Virtual School

The statewide, tuition-free online program, based in Orlando, has seen a 42 percent increase in applications to its full-time school since the pandemic began, spokeswoman Tania Clow said. Applications to its Flex programs, which allow part-time study, have jumped 29 percent. There’s no cap on enrollment in the Flex program; for the full-time school, she said administrators will see how many applications they have after the July 31 deadline.

In the full-time program, students learn on a traditional 180-day school calendar with state certified teachers and get a Florida Virtual School diploma when they graduate. There are live and recorded sessions and frequent contacts with teachers, who communicate by phone, email and text.

And there is some flexibility to move around: Students can transfer back to their home school after completing the fall semester if brick-and-mortar schools reopen.

Although students participate from all over the state, FLVS Full Time offers some school activities and events. Elementary and middle school students write morning announcements and high school students have a news show. Before the pandemic, there were monthly meetups by county as well as a Grad Bash and a graduation ceremony for seniors, held in Central Florida.

There’s even a mascot, the Megabyte, to make students feel more connected to this online world.

Florida Virtual School wants applications by July 31; the first day of online classes is Aug. 12.

Students can enroll in FLVS Flex at any time and take one course or multiple courses as a supplement to homeschooling or other schooling.

Pros: An established history and consistent reputation since it was founded in 1997.

Cons: Students are from all over the state and close friendships may be hard to foster.

Go to flvs.net for more information.

Broward Virtual School, Palm Beach Virtual School, Miami-Dade Online Academy

These are local franchises of the state FLVS program. Teachers are based in your county and work on the same August to May schedule as the local school district.

Palm Beach Virtual School had about 300 students last year; Broward Virtual had about 80 in kindergarten through fifth grade, although the school has received more than 300 applications for next year and is already full for elementary school, Principal Christopher McGuire said.

Broward Virtual is referring elementary students to Miami-Dade’s program, Miami-Dade Online Academy, which is open to Broward students.

In the elementary program, the parent has to agree to be the child’s “learning coach,” grade the child’s work and report back to the teacher each week, McGuire said. The elementary curriculum is based in traditional textbooks and not as technology-focused as middle and high school, he said.

Application deadlines are fast approaching. Applications for full-time learning in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County’s online elementary schools is July 16. In Broward, there’s a waiting list for elementary students, but middle and high school students can apply through Sept. 11.

Pros: Smaller than FLVS, locally based, certified teachers and quick customer service.

Cons: There’s a waiting list for Broward Virtual’s elementary program.

Go to bved.net for Broward Virtual School; hpbv.palmbeachschools.org for Palm Beach Virtual School; and mdo.dadeschools.net for Miami-Dade Online Academy.

Distance learning with your neighborhood school

“Distance learning” refers to teachers from the neighborhood school educating their students through Microsoft Teams or Google Classrooms on their computers at home. It’s what South Florida school districts quickly implemented when coronavirus closed down schools in March.

Many parents weren’t satisfied with this arrangement. They said teachers shortened the school day or assigned too many videos to watch. So many are skeptical that this plan will work in the fall.

“I think if Broward County wants to do the online learning, that’s fine, but the teachers need to teach each day,” said Jill Steinberg-Bieber of Coconut Creek, a mother of two who was disappointed with her older son’s virtual education when school was closed last semester. “They don’t get a free pass on just checking in and then spending two minutes on what the kids need to do, then leave.”

But Broward and Palm Beach school officials are promising an improved experience, with teachers better trained in the technology and intensive monitoring of students’ participation and progress.

Instruction will be live every day, said Keith Oswald, Palm Beach County schools’ deputy superintendent. It will follow a schedule similar to the school day, with electives including physical education, music and art. Expectations for the day will be clearly laid out, and teachers will hold “office hours” for parents and students to ask questions, he said.

“The quality will definitely be improved,” he said.

Pros: Get to know teachers and neighbors online and meet them in person when the pandemic is over.

Cons: Parents criticized the quality of instruction when distance learning began in March.

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©2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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