How virtual school will work in Nashville, according to top MNPS officials

(Photo: Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images)
(Photo: Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images)

When school officially starts in less than two weeks, thousands of Nashville students, teachers and parents will enter into the unchartered waters of virtual learning.

Although Metro Nashville Public Schools offered a version of distance learning in the spring when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, virtual school was more informal, work was not graded and the video conferences were sporadic.

The hope among district leaders was that spread of the virus would be under control so that families could choose between in-person learning and virtual school. But with infection numbers continuing to rise in Nashville, MNPS Director Adrienne Battle decided to require distance learning for at least the first month.

And the possibility remains that should the spread of the virus spike in Nashville, students could have to toggle back and forth between virtual school and in-person school throughout the year. Even if district leaders decide it is safe enough for students to return to the classroom, families will still have the option to choose virtual school instead.

With that in mind, the Tennessee Lookout interviewed MNPS executive officer of curriculum and instruction David Williams and executive director of non-traditional schools and high school support James Witty to get a better understanding of how virtual school will work.

Florida Virtual School to provide curriculum

Because virtual school is necessary for all students for at least the first month and because the possibility exists of students switching between in-person and distance learning, Battle decided it was necessary to centralize curriculum for this school year.

Florida Virtual School
Florida Virtual School

The district hired Florida Virtual School to provide the curriculum, which will be used by students in the classroom and those learning online. The school board approved a $5 million contract with Florida Virtual School for the curriculum.

It’s important for parents to understand that their children will not be enrolled in Florida Virtual School. Students will be enrolled in the same schools they were expected to attend and they’ll be taught by teachers at that school.

“The spring was unstructured in a lot of ways and one of the things we knew we needed, and just came through loud and clear in our committees developing plans for the fall, was just consistency in expectations and clarity in expectations for students at home as well as teachers,” Williams said. “From a curriculum standpoint we knew we needed something consistent but also adaptable depending on what situation we were in.”

Think of Florida Virtual School as the digital supplier of textbooks, lesson plans and other learning materials. Families will access the content, including lesson plans, homework, study guides, quizzes and other materials through the Schoology portal.

“There’s two parts to this (for teachers). The first is how do I teach in a virtual setting? And the second is how do I develop content in a virtual setting,” Williams said. “Those are two very different things. So we thought it best if we could provide something for them so they only had to focus on teaching in a virtual setting, as opposed to teaching and developing content in a virtual setting.”

Williams added that “lesson plans” and “curriculum” don’t teach.

“Teachers teach students. Books don’t teach students any more than curriculum does,” he said, explaining that the district’s plan will rely on the talent’s of its teachers to be successful.

MNPS has worked with Florida Virtual School in the past

This isn’t the first time Metro has utilized Florida Virtual School for curriculum since MNPS has offered a virtual school option to middle school and high school students since 2011. Witty served as principal of Nashville’s virtual school until last school year.

“The virtual school up until recently served students who for whatever reason the typical middle or high school experience just wasn’t working for them,” Witty said. “One of the things I think will help us this school year is leveraging some of those lessons learned from the last decade of having a virtual school here in Metro.”

Witty said there are three ingredients that are essential for virtual school to work: communication, engagement and feedback.

“Sometimes students fall behind and we can’t accept that. Sometimes we have to pick up a phone or connect however necessary to re-engage with that student,” Witty said.

Synchronized learning vs. students working at their own pace

Approximately 10 hours of learning will be done in synchronized sessions with teachers leading the study through video chats on Microsoft Teams. The rest of the learning will be conducted at a student’s pace and teachers will keep office hours for students who need extra support.

Williams said principals were told to develop master schedules as if students were returning in person.

David Williams (Photo: Metro Nashville Public Schools)
David Williams (Photo: Metro Nashville Public Schools)

Students may expect to engage with their teachers about three times per week for any one content area. Teachers were advised to limit synchronized video sessions to no more than an hour at a time, and to space them out so students don’t have several back-to-back Teams conferences in a row.

Technology help

Because the virtual school plan will involve thousands of students and teachers accessing a wide array of online material at the same time, the district is bulking up its IT support staff. Families will be able to call a hotline to ask questions, Williams said.

Mayor John Cooper approved $24 million to purchase a laptop for each student and internet hot spots for those who need them. The laptops won’t be ready for every student at the start of the year, but the district will provide students laptops from its current reserve supply.

Aligning Florida Virtual School content with state standards

Williams said the district’s content teams are in the process of reviewing the Florida Virtual School curriculum grade-by-grade to ensure it meets the state Department of Education standards and aligns with TNReady, the end-of-year standardized test that was skipped last school year due to the pandemic.

Williams said that before the curriculum is shared with teachers, the content team will add or supplement the materials provided by Florida Virtual School. That might mean an extra lesson plan or two in a particular subject.

“From there, there’s still the opportunity for teachers to strengthen it and supplement it the way they feel,” Williams said.