BURLEY — Cassia County School District will launch an accredited K-12 virtual academy in August, giving an extra option to parents who feel uneasy about sending children back to traditional classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The academy will be an ongoing program each year and is open to students throughout Mini-Cassia.
An informational meeting on the Cassia County program will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at Burley High School’s little theater.
“We want families to have this choice and to be able to choose our local school district as an online option,” said Sandra Miller, assistant superintendent at the district.
District officials were looking at starting an online academy program during the prior year before the coronavirus caused schools to do a soft closure, but the uncertainty brought on by the virus made it a priority.
“The virus prompted us to roll it out sooner,” Miller said.
Minidoka County schools will also offer parents the option of enrolling students in online instruction or traditional classroom instruction this fall.
District officials made the decision this week, Superintendent James Ramsey said in an email to the Times-News.
Parents can enroll students in the online school on the district’s website.
Students in the district’s fully online program will still have to meet all Idaho standards and students take IRI and ISAT tests.
They will participate in daily online instruction with their teacher and independently complete assignments. Time spent engaged in online learning will vary depending on grade level but will equal the time students spend in a traditional school setting and parents are expected to support their students with online learning.
An online teacher will engage with the students every day and provide office hours for additional assistance.
At this time, the district plans to also have traditional classrooms open, which will likely operate under a tiered system that will modify the exposure of staff and students if conditions during the pandemic change, Superintendent James Shank said. The details of that plan are still being ironed out.
Students can attend the Mini-Cassia Online Learning Academy on the Edmentum platform free of charge and the district will use some of its CARES Act funds to launch the platform this year, Miller said. The exact costs will be based on student enrollment and how many teachers are needed.
Students from outside the Cassia County school district can also enroll.
“That’s why we chose that name,” Miller said. “We want it to be available to everyone in the area.”
State funding for student attendance at the academy will pay for the continuation of the program in coming years and keep it a free program for students.
“We’ll have our own teachers that parents and students can visit with if necessary,” Miller said.
Students can log in to work on assignments at any time and the certified teachers will be available to academy students after traditional classroom hours.
Academy students who do not have access to a tablet or computer will be assigned a Chromebook to use, Shank said.
Elementary students will also have access to hard copies of the material.
“We will have hard-copy materials available for younger kids because for them working online can just be more challenging,” Miller said.
Students may graduate from the accredited online academy, if they choose, or at any time transition back to a classroom.
The academy will also be open to students who were previously homeschooled.
“Some parents and students just prefer to learn from home,” she said.
The academy will give home- schoolers access to the curriculum and to the teachers.
Alisha Samples has home- schooled her children for about eight years. Two of her children are now out of high school.
“I’m totally supportive of this program,” Samples said.
“I really commend the district for branching out and acknowledging different learning opportunities,” she said. “Classrooms are not for everyone.”
Her 13-year-old daughter doesn’t enjoy the traditional electives classes available in school, she said. So Samples has tweaked the program to fit her daughter’s interests and needs.
“She likes livestock so we incorporate farm activities,” she said. “We call it ‘applicable learning.’”
Shank said other districts he worked for had online programs and they worked well.
“In a blended program like this, students can seamlessly transition back to a classroom,” he said.
Miller will oversee the school district’s committee to organize the project. Teachers and project coordinators at elementary- and secondary-school levels may have up to 10 online students.
The coordinators will make sure students are able to access the program and are getting assignments done.
Teachers will get a stipend for the extra work, paid per student per semester, Miller said.
Depending on where clusters of online students are located, the new virtual program could help alleviate some of the overcrowding that continues to be a problem at district schools.
“At Burley High School, they could certainly use some more classrooms,” she said.
The district is going to hold a virtual meeting at the end of July or the first part of August to answer questions from the community.
The opening day of the academy and district schools is Aug. 24.
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