For the NC Virtual Public School, remote learning is nothing new

Though remote learning is a novel thing for many students and educators due to the coronavirus pandemic, for the staff at the North Carolina Virtual Public School, it's nothing new. Using its years of experience with distance learning, it's helping ease the transition for students, parents, and educators with its array of online and digital resources.

Posted Updated
Abbey Slattery
, WRAL Digital Solutions
This article was written for our sponsor, the North Carolina Virtual Public School.

Since early March, schools across the country have been operating remotely to varying degrees. In North Carolina, the governor's orders will keep schools virtual until at least late summer, and the transition has been a difficult one for students and teachers alike.

For many educators, this is their first foray into virtual teaching, and they're in search of some sort of helpful model to follow.

At the North Carolina Virtual Public School, instructors and staff have been teaching online classes and offering remote resources to North Carolina students since 2007. In an effort to ease the current transition, they've been using their experience with remote learning to help students, parents, and teachers adjust to the change through webinars, office hours and other online resources.

While the program has certainly seen more traffic lately, its mission has always been a valuable one to students and schools across the state.

"We enroll from most every district and around 90 charter schools for grade six through 12," said Eliz Colbert, the executive director at NCVPS. "Right off the bat, it was a popular idea, and we had 17,000 students enrolled that first year. Our mission has always been equity and access. Even if a student doesn't live in Charlotte, Raleigh or Greensboro, they can still have access to AP courses, career and technical education courses, or world languages."

Initially, schools enrolled students into NCVPS courses the school did not offer. The program provided equitable access across the state to hard-to-get courses. As demand grew, so did their course catalog. Now, NCVPS offers roughly 150 different courses per year, although some rotate in and out as tweaks to the curriculum are required.

With a highly experienced teaching staff on hand, NCVPS provides high-quality online courses to students in participating schools all over the state. Every NCVPS course is taught by a North Carolina certified teacher, and each teacher is required to have a continuing license, identifying them as an experienced teacher. After the interview process, each instructor must also complete a 16-week training course that preps them on all aspects of online teaching, from effective tools to use to strategies that encourage student participation.

"Our teachers are absolutely incredible, and they're prepared to work with students where they are," said Mia Murphy, the chief operating officer at NCVPS. "Along with that, one of the things that distinguishes our program is course development. For the most part, we develop our own courses based on the state curriculum. As the curriculum and standards change, we immediately revise our courses and teachers quickly adapt to that. That aspect distinguishes us from online vendor programs. We're an entity that is born from the state, and we work to service the needs of the state. We don't work to make sure that we're teaching to other states' standards— we're focused on North Carolina."

Since NCVPS is an entity born from the state, the program's funding is based on state legislation. Created by a group of superintendents in 2009, the funding consists of a four-year rolling projection based on usage of NCVPS throughout the state.

Each individual district's use determines the program's instructional budget. This primarily covers teachers' salaries.

Once a school gets connected with NCVPS, it then must appoint an e-learning advisor — whether it be a teacher with a free period, a counselor or an assistant principal — who works as an in-school liaison between the NCVPS teacher and enrolled students.

Aside from core classes like math, science, history and language arts, NCVPS also offers an array of advanced placement courses, world languages, middle school, electives, and career and technical education courses, some of which may not be available in a traditional school's curriculum. In doing so, they aim to give all students in the state equal access to highly qualified teachers in as wide a range of courses as possible.

In further efforts to make education accessible to all students, NCVPS also offers a program that works directly with students on the Occupational Course of Study Diploma Track, a road to graduation that was specifically developed for students with severe cognitive issues or learning disabilities.

"It's unlike anything in the state, and it was created because of a federal law stipulation regarding this diploma track," Colbert explained. "The change directed OCS teachers to be certified in English, math, science and social studies. Of course, that was a problem. So based on that licensure change, we created a co-teaching program, where we would provide the content teacher and the school would provide the special education teacher. For example, our teacher is the English teacher, and then in the school, the special education teacher helps the students and provides things for our teacher to modify around the content. That program had 18,000 student enrollments last year."

While certainly a strong example of the work that NCVPS does, the OCS program is far from their only foray into collaboration. As educators across the state have had to pivot to remote learning, the staff at NCVPS has been using their experience to help where they can.

"Asking teachers to go from traditional to online over the weekend — it wasn't quite that extreme, but close — was daunting. But I knew we had the experts who could help, and the team was willing to put aside some of their projects to teach others," Colbert said. "We've been providing free webinars, as well as something we call Office Hours, where you can come and ask a question about a certain tool or a strategy to engage students. Even if people only have one question about one thing, these Office Hours are perfect for that, and if they want a whole session on accessibility issues or how to teach PE online, we offer whole sessions."

Help with remote learning is the current focus, but NCVPS still has its eyes set on the future. Moving forward, the staff hopes to continue pursuing their mission to make education accessible to all by introducing innovative new measures that help connect students to opportunities across the state.

"The more creative things we are working on are Virtual Career Pathways and Virtual Internships," Colbert said. "For example, if you're a student who lives around Asheville, the idea of having an internship in marine biology is probably pretty far-fetched. But is there technology or tools we can use to make that happen for you? The other initiative we're just starting is something we call our Partnership Program, where for a very reduced price, we will provide our courses to the districts, and then the districts provide the teachers. Because the hard part about virtual learning is making a good course to teach online, so for a reduced price, we would provide them with the course material."

While these plans continue despite COVID-19, the NCVPS team has been more than happy to make the pivot to helping teachers and students as they adjust to remote learning. While no one knows quite what the learning experience will look like come next fall, NCVPS plans to continue sharing their expertise through webinars, office hours and additional online resources.

This article was written for our sponsor, the North Carolina Virtual Public School.