For the show-and-tell on Friday, Genevieve Billingsley presented her granddaughter, Alaina, with a green and yellow ukulele. The 5-year-old played the strings in front of her iPad as she sat on the sofa in her Belmont Cragin flat.
Already that morning, Alaina had watched a video about the weather, written her name with a big yellow pencil, and practiced “finger breathing,” a mindfulness technique. Her pre-kindergarten teacher and special education classroom assistant offered her virtual praise and encouragement via her tablet. Occasionally, Alaina would interrupt her homework to lift her Spider-Man shirt to make sure her navel was still there.
Alaina is a student at Virtual Academy, the Chicago public schools distance learning option introduced in August for “medically fragile” students as the district returned to full-time in-person learning for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic. CPS recently announced that it is relaxing the academy’s admissions guidelines for the fall and increasing access to advanced courses.
La Tribune spoke with the parents of four children enrolled in the academy this year. They shared different experiences, but each said they were grateful for the program because it was able to limit exposure to the coronavirus. More than 15,000 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded this school year among the 270,000 students enrolled in CPS-run schools, according to data from the district, which insists schools are not sites of transmission. important.
“We had a rocky start, but we smoothed things over,” Billingsley said of Virtual Academy. “I can’t speak for all of us (in the program), but there are many who think we’ve finally found a good plan for the future. We’re always going to be a little bit deficient in how things are going to work with (the personal interaction), but I think for kids like (Alaina), who are high risk, and kids who struggle socially, J I feel like this is a very good option.
To be eligible, students in pre-K through 12 had to have a certain medical condition such as leukemia, spina bifida or cystic fibrosis. Children with asthma, diabetes, heart disease or other conditions could be admitted if their attendance has suffered in the previous year.
Marisela Reyes said her 8-year-old daughter, Nayeli, has CHARGE Syndrome, a rare and complex disorder that has impaired her hearing and vision and affected her heart and other parts of her body.
Reyes noticed before the pandemic that Nayeli caught illnesses easily from her classmates who sent her to the hospital. Reyes said she or Nayeli’s nurse helps her with her Virtual Academy classes.
“It’s an incredible experience for us. I kept my child healthy,” said Reyes, who lives in the West Lawn neighborhood. “I see her having everything she needs to learn right now, and everything is tailored to her needs.”
Billingsley said Alaina was born premature and spent eight weeks in the newborn intensive care unit. She suffers from asthma and congenital heart disease. Billingsley said Alaina was rejected when she applied to the Virtual Academy last year, but was accepted on appeal.
Alaina was not alone. The CPS said last year it identified 4,265 qualified students for the Virtual Academy and received more than 700 applications, a number that reflects some students resubmitting materials. At least 200 students were denied admission. About 450 students were enrolled in the Virtual Academy on the 20th day of school, according to CPS data.
Billingsley and Nicole Beattie, whose 5-year-old son Keith is in Alaina’s class, described the fall as chaotic because their virtual classroom staff were inconsistent. A review of CPS public employee records from September 30 – a month after the start of classes – shows that nine of the 87 Virtual Academy positions were vacant, including two special education teachers and three special education classroom assistants. . Ninety-nine Virtual Academy positions had been filled as of March 31, the most recent online employment data.
In a statement, CPS said Virtual Academy teachers were hired as quickly as possible. A substitute was put in place if there was a vacant teaching position. The district said that in one case, a teacher hired and trained for the Virtual Academy quit the day before school started, so an assistant principal worked with the education classroom replacement and assistant. to ensure that the lessons met the needs of the students.
“CPS actively encourages parents and students to engage in open dialogue with administrators and staff as the Virtual Academy grows,” the district said in its statement, which noted that the school holds monthly a parents’ meeting and a bilingual advisory council meeting.
Beattie had hoped for more one-on-one interactions in the Virtual Academy via online breakout rooms, but said momentum slowed when a new teacher or class assistant was assigned to the class. She said in-person schooling isn’t the best course for Keith, who is autistic with a speech impediment. He has difficulty speaking and wearing a mask, said Beattie, who feared being bullied.
Four students regularly log in to their class, while one student was recently in hospital, Billingsley and Beattie said. Virtual Academy attendance lagged in the first few months compared to brick-and-mortar schools, Chalkbeat Chicago found, with the exception of January during omicron’s push.
Beattie said that despite staffing issues and a schedule she describes as slow, she still plans to stick with the Virtual Academy and hopes CPS will be better prepared this fall.
“I know my son can’t go to a (district) school. I fear he is being bullied because of his condition,” said Beattie, who lives in the West Pullman neighborhood. “So yeah, I like distance learning. I’m not going to say ‘Virtual Academy’. I’m going to say, ‘Distance learning is great, but I wish we had more academies of distance learning” from which to choose.
Alaina applied again for the Virtual Academy, Billingsley said. She said Alaina contracted the coronavirus around Christmas and showed signs of long COVID, the term used when virus-related symptoms linger for months or even years.
Billingsley said Alaina could still attend classes from home, even when she had a fever.
“Going through this with her over the past few months has shown that the Virtual Academy was a better option than missing what would have been intermittent school months since January,” Billingsley said.
For fall entry, the Virtual Academy is dropping its list of required evils. Students are eligible if they have a medical condition documented in their individualized education program or 504 plan and a medical professional recommending remote learning as the best option for them. The District is accepting 2022-23 applications for the Virtual Academy through July 1.
Some parents have repeatedly asked CPS to open access to the Virtual Academy to everyone. This campaign intensified during the delta and omicron variant surges of the COVID-19 pandemic and after the district withdrew its mask mandate in March.
Students must reapply to the Virtual Academy each year. CPS said it will announce acceptances by July 15. If demand exceeds capacity of 550, a lottery will determine placement.
Qualified students who have not been accepted will be placed on a waiting list. Accepted students will be enrolled in the Virtual Academy and a district-operated school, which will receive funding for the student and accommodate the child for in-person state evaluations.
A CPS spokeswoman said the Virtual Academy is partnering with CPS high schools to increase access to advanced placement and dual credit courses for the upcoming school year, while elementary schools will have access to virtual Spanish and algebra classes in college.
Ranning James does not plan to re-enroll his 10-year-old son at the Virtual Academy. She said remote learning was the best fall option for Ayden, who has respiratory issues and was too young for the COVID-19 vaccine. James said Ayden missed in-person interaction with classmates, so he recently started attending Skinner West Elementary School after being vaccinated.
James, who lives in the West Loop, said she wanted the Virtual Academy to put more emphasis on physical activity in her schedule. But she praised the teachers and program administration for their flexibility. She said Ayden is a fourth year student who was allowed to study the fifth year program at the Virtual Academy because it suited him best.
“We thought Virtual Academy was a great option for a family like ours,” James said. “You have to weigh the pros and cons. There is no perfect solution during this “pandemic”.