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Hamilton Southeastern Schools to Offer 100% Virtual Option

In an effort to retain students who learn better from home or have COVID-related health concerns, Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Indiana is preparing two virtual-only options for the coming school year.

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(TNS) — Students in Hamilton Southeastern Schools will continue to have a choice of 100-percent virtual education next school year. But the format won't be the same as it is this year.

Aiming to help students who have medical concerns, either for themselves or those they live with, due to COVID-19, the district created the new program. Virtual-only students will have to commit for at least a semester and will not be able to participate in extra curriculars or sports unless there is a virtual option.

The HSE Board of School Trustees approved the new program in a 6-1 vote on Wednesday evening. Board member Suzanne Thomas was the lone no vote. During the board discussion, Thomas advocated for delaying the vote to give parents more time to research the options.

Ahead of the vote, multiple board members brought up that parents want to know if masks will be required next school year before they decide.

“No one can answer that question right now,” said board member Julie Chambers.

However, she and outgoing superintendent Allen Bourff said that it would be safe to say the district will continue to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Fishers Health Department recommendations.

Matt Kegley, HSE assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said that based on the number of virtual students this year as well as feedback from parents, the district decided to design the program for the upcoming school year. But he said it's impossible to know yet just how many will opt in for next year.

As of Tuesday morning, nearly 23 percent of HSE students – almost 5,000 students – were fully virtual.

HSE wants virtual students to stay

Per the new Indiana state budget, the state funds virtual students at 85 percent of their in-person peers.

However, Kegley said that he doesn’t anticipate a financial loss by offering this program, which he said will be funded with state dollars as well as federal COVID relief funds.

And CFO Cecilie Nunn told the board on Wednesday that while the district will get less money per virtual student, it is better than if that student left the district entirely to attend a 100-percent virtual program elsewhere.

Additionally, Kegley said he's planning for the program to have one or two coordinators, ideally someone with administrators’ licenses who will be a point person to help organize and connect teachers with resources.

He said the person could be an internal hire or someone from outside the district, but it will be a one-year position.

While aimed at those with medical concerns, Kegley said there will be no requirements for students to participate. However, if a student says they are interested in 100-percent virtual and the school is concerned on their ability to succeed in that format, based on current performance, they may ask for documentation to show it is needed.

He also added that the district will set a clear list of expectations for families including that students will have accommodations to do state testing in-person.

The virtual program has two formats

In designing the program, Kegley said it was important to create something that didn’t require teachers to instruct virtually and in-person at the same time as they are currently.

The program divides students into two groups: kindergarten to sixth grade and grades 7 to 12.

For the younger students, HSE will have virtual-only classrooms at each grade level with virtual-only teachers. Those teachers will still have classrooms in the schools to have resources available to them. Related arts will be asynchronously, such as self-paced recorded videos, throughout the week and plans are in the works to make library books accessible to virtual students.

Kegley said that as a cost of the program, HSE would need to pay $800 per K-6 teacher for technology and other needed resources.

He added that if there is an influx of students opting back to in-person for the spring semester, that means some virtual-only teachers could become in-person teachers and students could be moved to different classes to balance out class sizes.

“It’s very difficult ... as we stand here in late April, to understand what it will be like in January,” Kegley told the board at a work session Tuesday morning that focused on the virtual program.

For grades 7 to 12, students will receive instruction from Indiana Online, which will hire teachers to teach English, social studies, science and math in a synchronous, or live format. To cover the cost of teachers, HSE will pay Indiana Online $2,400 per virtual student.

For the high school, students will take other courses from a list of classes offered by Indiana Online including AP and Core 40 level classes. Those will be asynchronous, like the Indiana Online courses that HSE students take for summer school.

For grades 7 and 8, the additional courses are more limited, but could be taught synchronous and asynchronous.

Per the plan presented to the board, HSE will open an application window from May 3 to 14 for families to indicate if they are interested in the virtual option. There will also be webinars during that time for parents to learn more and ask questions.

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