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Beaufort Schools Make Virtual Lessons Work for Some

Beaufort County School District in South Carolina has two separate programs, different from the makeshift ones it used during the pandemic, that have allowed some students to flourish by learning from home.

A young student attending a virtual lesson on a laptop.
(TNS) — Grace Lyons didn't want to go back when schools returned to in-person instruction after more than a year of online learning due to the pandemic.

She was an eighth grader at the time and in the classroom she was unable to focus on her art — a digital collection of biblically accurate angels is her latest. She was distracted by other students, couldn't do anything if she was hit by a bout of inspiration mid-lesson, and her grades weren't as good as they could be.

So, when Beaufort County public schools decided to use federal government relief grant money to support continued online learning past the pandemic, "it felt like our prayers had been answered," according to her mother, Melissa Lyons. Now the high schooler is a straight-A student, and her art has progressed to the point that it's unrecognizable from two years ago.

Grace is one of 73 students in virtual learning this year. Last year, there were 85 students, according to district spokesperson Candace Bruder.

"She went from average to excelling," said Lyons, a self-taught artist herself who started painting 10 years ago. In addition to her shop in downtown Beaufort, her paintings are sold worldwide. Prints can even be found in Target.

While most of last year's online students were worried about COVID, most of the students in this year's virtual learning program find it simply works best for them, Bruder said.

Almost two years after the height of the COVID pandemic, masks and other anti-COVID precautions may be gone for the most part, but new impacts on education emerged. One being that a small percentage of parent and students voiced a desire to stay online, and warmed to the idea that school doesn't have to be inside the walls of a classroom.

The district cautions the programs don't work for everyone, but they're giving families for whom it does work for the technology and tools they need to — for example — hold study hall in an art studio, surrounded by Lowcountry-themed canvases and creamy oil paints.


The district has two separate programs, and they're different from the makeshift emergency response students were in during the pandemic.

"Kids went home on a Friday afternoon, and we were told Sunday that we were going to start virtual teaching," Beaufort County teacher Amber Williamson said of pandemic learning. "That kind of left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouth as to what virtual looks like. True virtual learning has been planned for years."

Williamson is a third-grade teacher at Low Country Virtual, the online program Beaufort County formed for the 2021-22 school year with seven other South Carolina school districts. That school year the program offered online instruction to grades six through eight and expanded to include fourth and fifth graders for the 2022-23 school year.

The other seven districts in Low Country Virtual are: Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester District 2, Dorchester District 4, Florence District 2 and Greenwood District 52.

Williamson, like all virtual program teachers, is state certified.

"It was just by demand," Chief Instructional Services Officer Mary Stratos said when asked why they started the program.

"Parents were already putting calls in to say, 'We don't want our students back live face-to-face. What are the other options?'" Stratos said.

The online high school program started this year. The district partnered with Berkeley County to offer classes through a program called VirtualSC.


Grace and her family have lived in Texas, California and, for the past five years, Beaufort.

"We represent the military community," Melissa Lyons said.

There is no set mold for families who decide to enroll their student in virtual learning, according to Bruder. Some students are easily distracted in classrooms with other students, so they do better at home. Others have medical reasons that prevent them from being in-person. Many families enjoy the flexibility that virtual learning allows.

On the other hand, online school isn't the best fit for others, even children from the same families. Lyons also has a 12-year-old daughter, Lucy, who attends school in-person.

"It's been the most beautiful, wonderful, experience, but not for my little Lucy," Lyons said. "(She) just tanked and lost her light when school (was virtual)."

Not every student will succeed academically, struggling with tasks such as staying on task by themselves. Even those who excel might find their social lives suffer.

And even if virtual learning was right for every student, enrollment is capped at 5 percent of the district's students. It makes it so that academic counselors, who officials say students and parents should go to if they're considering the option, are selective in who they allow to participate in the program.

"There have been applicants who aren't eligible," Stratos said. "When they went virtual prior, they may not have been successful."


Seventh grader MaKayla Hinchey is the first female wrestling state champion from H.E. McCracken Middle School.

At 5 years old, she saw UFC fighter Ronda Rousey on TV and said, "I want to do that," according to her mom, Jennifer Hinchey.

"Absolutely not," Hinchey said, but MaKayla didn't let up for months. Finally, Hinchey caved in and enrolled her in mixed martial arts classes. From there, MaKayla's coach suggested she try wrestling to build her strength.

"She's loved it ever since," Hinchey said.

During the busy season, MaKayla trains for about six hours every day, and her family driving hours for tournaments in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina is the norm.

MaKayla started virtual school this semester, and it allows her to pursue her dream, Hinchey said. The transition from in-person to online wasn't easy, though.

"She had a hard transition the first month," Hinchey said. They had some issues setting up the computer, which the district provides and maintains for all virtual students. "She's still trying to play catch up, you know? But come next semester, it'll be easier."

Using Google Meet, fourth- through eighth-grade students, like MaKayla, typically have two classes in the morning and two classes in the afternoon. They're separated into the classes by grade level, and for the rest of the time they work independently.

If MaKayla is traveling in the car she uses a WiFi hot spot to log into classes, which she said can be tricky. When the internet doesn't work she lets her teachers know and they'll work around her absence.

Another challenge of virtual classes in the car is "my brother dancing in the background," MaKayla said. Her brother goes to school in-person at May River High School.

In grades K-3, students have one teacher who they stay with until noon. For the rest of the day students go to breakout sessions with others to complete their work.

High school instruction is the most independent, and doesn't have lectures. Instead, students pick courses from VirtualSC and work on them independently. Each course is taught by a licensed South Carolina teacher who is available during set office hours.

Despite the flexible hours, and state waiver for the typically-required 120 in-person hours per credit, data show virtual students' performance hasn't slipped.

On average, Beaufort County sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade virtual students perform better than Beaufort County students as a whole on statewide tests, according to SC Ready scores provided by the district. Since this is the high school program's first year, there isn't any data yet. School officials stress that comparing test scores from virtual and in-person learning is not apples to apples, as the selection part plays a large part in the numbers.

Testing is the only time students are required to show up in person, but they're allowed to participate in all school-sponsored activities.

"She gets to go to school dances, she gets to do everything at the school. She's really not missing out on anything except for distraction," Hinchey said, explaining that most of MaKayla's friends are through wrestling.


The district requires a guardian to commit to overseeing their students' education before they're allowed to participate in the program. It's a qualification that makes sure virtual school is the right fit for a family, and it also gives parents more control over their student's education.

Daniel "Coach" Godsun is one of those parents. For more than 30 years, Godsun has worked in youth development. For the past five he's served as the Boys & Girls Club program director on Hilton Head Island.

"I am an advocate for children. I coach and mentor," he said. "My main thing is to attract these kids through some type of athletics or things that they're interested in, and then do more character development stuff there."

Two of Godsun's children, eight-grade twins Dana and Daniel, are enrolled in virtual learning. At Hilton Head Island Middle School, Dana is a cheerleader and Daniel plays basketball.

Godsun said part of the benefit he sees in online education is that if parents hear something in a lesson they need to address they can do so immediately.

"We can talk about it in real time if the students choose to bring it to our attention. As someone who has been in youth development for many years, I don't intervene in what the lesson is, practice is, (whether it be) sports or academics," he said. "But when you see them respond, then you can help them. You actually don't have to wait a day or week later to find out something happened."

In Beaufort, surrounded by Bay Street's soft downtown chatter instead of basketball shoes squeaking in a gym, Lyons agrees.

"There's just some things you want to talk to your kid about," she said.

This is how she wants to finish high school, Grace said. But, the district is "unable to speculate on future programmatic funding," until the board undergoes its budget process, according to a statement.

Using the federal relief grant, called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, the district spent $348,930 for fiscal year 2022, and estimates it will spend $423,200 for fiscal year 2023 to fund the programs, according to Bruder. The federal government awarded the district almost $51 million in the latest round of ESSER funding, which is available for use until Sept. 30, 2024.

Since students can apply now for the online program next year, it will at least will run through then, according to Bruder.

"Not everything comes from the traditional model of education," Lyons said.

©2023 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.