The novel coronavirus changed secondary education across the nation in mid-March when schools closed, and students and teachers suddenly transitioned to online learning.
But for students at Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy, Maine’s two virtual charter schools, online education was not new. The academies have been operating online since their formation in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
“Whatever day that everybody was sent home, MEVA was just cranking forward with the same calendar, the same academic schedule,” said Dr. Melinda Browne, head of the Augusta-based Maine Virtual Academy. “We were a steady, sort of structured program for students.”
One result of COVID-19 has been an increased interest in virtual learning in Maine. The two online charter schools are free and any student in the state may enroll, though there are caps on the number of students who can attend from the same school district.
Each academy serves between 429-450 students in grades 7-12 spanning more than 100 districts statewide, and both saw their waiting list for the new school year increase by more than 150 students.
Maine Virtual Academy’s waiting list, which was around 200 students last year, now has approximately 350. Maine Connections Academy, based in Scarborough, has 300 students on its wait list, up from an estimated 125 at this time last year, according to school officials.
State law caps charter school enrollment at 500 per school. The recent demand has led both Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy to request their governing body, the Maine Charter School Commission, to boost enrollment allotments.
At its September meeting, the charter school commission approved increasing Maine Connections Academy’s enrollment from 429 to 450, with a plus-minus 5 percent allowance. In August, the commission allowed Maine Virtual Academy to undergo a similar expansion, from 390 to 429 students.
The commission has slowly increased the maximum number of students at each academy based on each schools’ performance on standardized testing and internal reviews.
The August enrollment increase for Maine Virtual Academy marked its first expansion since receiving criticism in a January 2019 report that cited high absenteeism (30 percent), a low four-year graduation rate (only 49 percent) and poor test scores among its students the previous year. By last September, the Maine Department of Education found the absentee rate improved by 27 points.
Both Browne and Walter Wallace, the Maine Connections Academy principal, attribute the rise in interested students to the stability virtual academies offer in a time when families are uncertain what model their district may take.
“Many schools are attempting different options such as a fully remote option or a hybrid model. If there’s a surge in the virus, anything can happen on any day, which we have seen in the past. So I think some stability is a big reason they’re looking at Maine Connections Academy,” Wallace said. “I also think the experience and expertise we have in the remote learning world makes us an attractive option.”
Browne and Wallace said some students sought virtual learning this year because they realized they did better online.
“The stories I’m hearing are, ‘she had a lot of anxiety in the classroom, and we noticed that when her teachers were sending her work home, she did better. She got better grades, she was more engaged and she was just less distracted,’” Browne said.
Although students and faculty did not experience a change in the instruction method, the emotional toll of the pandemic was apparent.
“The distractions were greater for our students, and also for our staff because our staff was now fully working remotely, and they had the same challenges that all the other folks were dealing with,” Wallace said.
For Maine Virtual Academy, changes in students’ mental health led to an increase in teacher engagement, and also to the development of a social-and-emotional learning program beginning this fall.
In Maine, 43.9 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunch. At Maine Connections Academy, 43.7 percent is eligible, and at Maine Virtual Academy 55.3 percent qualify. The pandemic’s long-lasting economic effects on the state have affected the student bodies of both schools, leading to an increase in support for students.
Maine Connections Academy hopes to hire a social worker to help identify students affected by the pandemic.
“Not everyone shares voluntarily. But we do know that there are folks that are struggling throughout our state, and we want to be able to help them access the multiple resources that are in their area,” Wallace said.
When brick-and-mortar schools made the transition to online learning, many questioned if some students would have access to reliable internet connectivity and the needed technology. Both virtual academies provide students with laptops — MEVA upon request and Maine Connections Academy to all students — and both provide reimbursement vouchers for the internet if they qualify.
Many see this as a time for virtual schools to thrive due to their experience in online education, but in the six years since MCA was chartered and the five since MEVA opened, both have had to navigate challenges such as training teachers to instruct remotely and chronic absenteeism.
Despite COVID-19, both schools reported that attendance rates did not change before and after the pandemic struck. One solution the academies found was “learning coaches” — a member of the household who is responsible for a student’s day-to-day activities, monitors attendance and ensures that students attend state examinations. The learning coach frequently communicates with teachers and staff.
Another solution was holding synchronous classes on a schedule that holds students accountable for attendance. At MCA, a new, robust advising program that includes individual check-ins and larger group discussions led to a 95 percent attendance that the school maintained through the end of the school year.
“This culture of virtual attendance took five years to establish, and yet we still continue to develop it. The culture is if you come to MEVA, then you’re going to these live sessions. And if you’re not, everybody knows why you weren’t there,” said Browne.
Most students attend classes synchronously, but due to the nature of virtual learning, students can watch asynchronous courses — when lectures, tests and assignments can be accessed at any time — if they have accommodations that the learning coach, student and academy have agreed upon.
“We do accommodate asynchronous participation, but it’s within our parameters,” Browne said.
Another challenge that virtual academies face are lowered testing scores on statewide, standardized tests.
At Maine Connections Academy, 70.9 percent of students across grades 7-12 performed below or well below state expectations in math, and 34.1 percent performed below or well below state expectations in English in 2018-19, according to the most recent state data. At Maine Virtual Academy, 83.8 percent of the student body performed below or well below state expectations in math in 2018-19 and 54.9 percent performed below or well below state expectations in English.
Statewide, 64.4 percent of 7-12 graders scored below or well below state expectations in math and 44.1 percent scored below or well below state expectations in English.
Challenges in attendance and performance may arise as schools across the state switch to a virtual or hybrid model. Many school districts have asked Browne and Wallace for advice for the new year. Browne said districts have reached out about how to teach special education virtually.
Although Wallace has shared what has worked for MCA, he believes there will be challenges for the schools in the next month.
“I would say it’s not possible for a brick-and-mortar school to do what we do in a six-month time period. Our educational experience that we offer students can’t be created in a six-month time period,” Wallace said.
Kate Lusignan, The Maine Monitor