While the county’s public school system has seen a more than 25 percent increase in the number of on-campus learners over the course of the academic year, it is also seeing a greater interest in online courses for next school year.

Pitt County Virtual Academy has had more than 1,700 requests for online high school courses for the 2021-22 school year ahead of today’s registration deadline for grades four through eight. Pitt County Schools Director of Digital Learning Tim DeCresie said a higher-than-usual demand could prompt the district to use a lottery system for accepting applicants.

Registration for online high school courses, which reflects the number of courses rather than the number of individual students, has exceeded what the district receives in a typical year. Pitt County Schools has not yet determined the maximum number of learners it will enroll in the virtual academy.

“We don’t have an unlimited capacity,” DeCresie said. “(But) we’re going to do what we can to respond to whatever the community demand is. We might need to hire some more teachers.”

Launched seven years ago, PCVA was designed primarily to serve high school students. But the coronavirus pandemic forced Pitt County and school districts across the country to expand virtual offerings. For the 2020-21 academic year, North Carolina’s public schools were required to make virtual instruction available for families that wanted to keep their children at home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

For the new school year beginning in August, Pitt County Schools plans to separate on-campus and distance instruction by hiring two dozen instructors to teach virtual courses only.

“We did what we had to do this year,” DeCresie said. “Hybrid was a tough pull on everybody involved. Next year, we just want to be able to divide and conquer as we approach education, so our virtual teachers can really attend to the needs of the virtual learners, whereas face-to-face teachers can attend to those kids right in front of them.”

Unlike this year’s virtual learning option, which was made available to anyone who requested it, PCVA will require students to meet certain criteria.

“One of the requirements was: Were they actively involved in virtual learning?” DeCresie said. “(If not) they’re not going to be approved for virtual learning next year.”

Participants must have a minimum of a C average for the previous year’s courses and perform on grade level on end-of-grade testing and other required assessments. In addition, virtual students must have reliable internet, which does not include a cellphone data plan or school-provided hotspot.

Virtual Academy students will be allowed to participate in extra-curricular activities, including athletics, at their base school. A one-semester commitment is required, but students can be reassigned to attend classes on campus if they fail to fulfill their online responsibilities, which include participating in class and completing assignments.

Students in kindergarten through third grade are not eligible to apply, a requirement that has drawn criticism from some parents, including Chris Powell, whose children were full-time virtual learners this year. The father of a kindergartner and a third-grader at Creekside Elementary School, Powell took his concerns to the Board of Education in a letter last month.

“COVID-19 has no boundaries and can harm and potentially cause death to any age group,” he wrote. “It appears that Pitt County Schools made the decision to put learning above a child’s health based off the decision of not offering virtual learning as an option for kindergarten through third grade.”

After receiving numerous complaints about offering a virtual academy to students in grades four-12 only, Powell pointed out, Wake County extended the application to younger students. He asked Pitt County Schools to keep the current virtual learning program in place for the upcoming school year.

DeCresie said while the district has had a few complaints, there are no plans to allow younger students to enroll as full-time virtual learners next school year.

“If we felt like we were putting kids at risk, we would be more open to that K-3 (online) environment, but we don’t feel like we’re doing that,” he said. “Face-to-face instruction is better for those younger learners that are just trying to get the foundation. If we can do that in a safe environment, then that’s the way we want to do it.”

Concerns about COVID-19 are not the only reasons some students opt for online instruction. A May 9 New York Times article pointed out that older teens, including some who have taken jobs during the pandemic, are hesitant go back to sitting in a classroom for most of the day.

DeCresie said PCVA is a good option for students who are motivated and disciplined to balance work and school.

“I do feel like the pandemic and districts being forced to go to virtual learning has potentially opened up opportunities,” he said. “We have kids that are doing that (working while taking online classes) that are being successful. Those are the ones we want to continue to support. Depending on what your situation is, that (PCVA) might be the best option for you.”

In recent years, offering online courses to students who need them has become part of the district’s drop-out prevention efforts. Pitt on Demand, launched four years ago, gives students a chance to take a minimum number of online courses temporarily so they are able to remain in school as they navigate personal difficulties, such as anxiety or teen pregnancy.

“It’s not a huge thing that’s happening with thousands of kids,” DeCresie said. “But we are utilizing that as a way to provide instruction and try to keep them on pace as they move toward graduating.”

Although the state has not yet issued online learning requirements for next school year, Senate Bill 654, introduced last month, addresses virtual academies among many issues schools are facing in the wake of the pandemic.

According to the proposed legislation, a group that includes parents, public schools officials and representatives of the state Board of Education will make recommendations to the state regarding the regulation of virtual academies.

For more information about Pitt County Virtual Academy, visit http://bit.ly/PCVA2122.

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com or call 329-9578.