— Parents and guardians in the Wake County Public School System have from Thursday until May 2 to decide whether to enroll in the district’s virtual academy next year.

The district’s Board of Education approved the registration period Tuesday evening, without opposition.

It will be the second year of the school district’s virtual academy, created to work around the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will look different from this year.

Parents and guardians can register for the virtual academy, but registration isn’t automatically confirmed by the school. Further an admitted student may be removed from virtual academy if the student isn’t following the responsibilities of enrollment, such as attendance and assignment completion. Families will receive confirmation of registration by May 12.

Registration is for the full academic year, but the district will reconsider requiring the full year in virtual instruction after the first semester, if vaccines become widely available for children younger than 16.

The virtual academy will be open to most kindergarten through 12th grade students. Pre-kindergarten students will have a virtual option but won’t be in a formal virtual academy, which is associated with all grades of each school. Originally, the district had proposed the virtual academy only for 4th through 12th grades, contending younger children’s social, emotional and academic development is better served in a physical classroom. But the district expanded the offering after hearing from parents of younger children that they wanted the virtual academy option.

Board Member Christina Kushner said she appreciated those concerns.

“We should still try to work really hard to allay those concerns to try to get our pre-k kiddos in person,” Kushner said.

Superintendent Cathy Q. Moore concurred.

“We are ready, expectant and want our families to access in-person learning for the next school year,” she said.

District officials have laid out their goals for the academy next year but not finessed details, such as which electives will be offered at each school and whether 100% of classes will be taught by an online-only educator. Many details will be firmed up based on registration — who enrolls at which schools and what their needs are.

The district’s goal is to eliminate concurrent teaching — when a teacher instructs both an online and in-person class at the same time. But Assistant Superintendent of Academics Drew Cook said a full elimination of concurrent teaching isn’t guaranteed.

The district has plans in place to avoid concurrent, by having teachers focused only on online learning or by offering an elective taught by one person to multiple schools’ virtual students, among other things, he said.

“We’ve got kind of a menu of strategies to deploy,” Cook said.

Cook acknowledged the limitations of the virtual academy, based on “first-hand experience from the past year.”

“It is not a solid, sustainable practice” on a large-scale long-term, he said.

The virtual academy will be run through each school, rather than being a centralized, district-wide academy.

“It is not the virtual academy that we would stand up if we were establishing a virtual school for the district,” Superintendent Cathy Q. Moore told the board.

Next year’s virtual academy remains a temporary, pandemic-inspired set up. It’s intended for families with health concerns and not for families who may use the virtual option to allow them to move elsewhere or travel throughout the year.

While some children or their parents may prefer virtual academy because of vaccine hesitancy or the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic next fall and winter, researchers note that, nationwide, a smaller slice of students has performed better virtually. That can include students easily distracted or made anxious by classrooms or who have benefited from using technology to help them learn.

The Wake County district’s schools are all open for daily in-person learning for those who want it, but just less than half of the district’s students remain in virtual learning.

What virtual academy will look like

The school district has outlined numerous details of what the virtual academy at each school will look like.

The district will provide devices for remote learning for virtual academy students.

It will include six hours of instruction, including an expected minimum of three hours of live instruction. The schedule will match a student’s home school. Students will have age-appropriate breaks built into their daily schedules. Grade policy will remain the same. Elective courses will likely be limited.

Teachers will form relationships with the students and provide social-emotional learning and other supports to them, as needed. The virtual academy will accommodate students with individualized education plans, with 504 plans, identified as academically or intellectual gifted or in need of intervention.

Virtual academy students may participate in extracurricular activities, though they won’t have transportation to and from school for those activities.

Virtual academy won’t be offered for courses incompatible with remote learning, and it won’t be offered at several schools. Those will be early college schools, alternative schools, leadership academies, Crossroads Flex High and some intensive special education programs.

It also won’t be available, necessarily, to students in quarantine.

Unlike this year, in-person students who must quarantine next school year won’t necessarily be able to log into virtual academy while they’re out of the classroom.

This year, students have been taught be the same teacher both virtually and in-person. But with the anticipated elimination of concurrent teaching next year, a student would have to be admitted into a new class with an open seat, if they wanted to attend virtual academy while quarantining.

The district’s pre-kindergarten virtual option will be provided in combination of live instruction and “family asynchronous time.” Students will be given iPads to help them do their work.