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These Parents Say Virtual Academy Provides Their Children with a Safe & Consistent Option

Due to health reasons, Edison Middle School student Autumn Lacher is enrolled in the Sioux Falls School District Virtual Academy.

School year 2020 is far from typical. And it’s even more unique for the nearly 3,000 Sioux Falls’ students opting to learn from home through the district’s Virtual Academy curriculum. SDPB’s Lura Roti talks with parents and administrators to learn more.

When the pandemic closed schools spring 2020, South Dakota parents of school-age children quickly became familiar with remote schooling. But the Virtual Academy option the Sioux Falls School District offers families who don’t feel safe returning to the traditional classroom this fall is different, explains Kirk Zeeck. 

“Primarily the learning is done at home through an online program with support from a classroom teacher that checks in,” Kirk Zeeck says.

Kirk Zeeck helps coordinates the program for the district. He’s part of a team who oversee the more than 100 teachers and nearly 3,000 students enrolled. Zeeck explains that the curriculum is different from Sioux Falls School District curriculum because it is designed specifically for an online learning platform. During the first week of school, students are given an online assessment to understand where they should begin.

“It puts you right where you need to be so that it can push you, not too much, not too little,” Kirk Zeeck says. “Kind of like Goldilocks.”

Holly Lacher is happy the district offered this option. She and her eighth-grade daughter, Autumn, have asthma, putting them in a high-risk category if they were to contract COVID-19. 

“It’s a hard decision because she is very social. But we had to outweigh the risk,” Lacher says.

Health was one of the reasons Danielle McClure decided to enroll her elementary, middle school and high school sons in Virtual Academy. Like Holly and Autumn, she has asthma. Consistency was the other reason. 

“I feel like eventually our schools are probably going to end up going online or hybrid or you know, back and forth potentially. And I feel like the thing that Virtual Academy has going for it is it gives us some consistency,” McClure says.

Consistency is also the reason Kirk Zeeck gave for Virtual Academy enrollment being a one-year commitment with the option to opt out December 1. 

And even though students are learning from their homes instead of brick and mortar buildings, they will remain connected to their home schools, explains Edison Middle School Principal Shane Hieronimus.

“My message to our Virtual Academy parents is, you know, life happens and extenuating circumstances happen and we want what’s best for you and your student. And right, now, that Virtual Academy is the best option for you and your family. But we also want them to know that you’re still part of the Edison family. You’re still an Edison Cat. And we want you to be connected to Edison through this time because we value your presence here. We value your commitment to Edison and just want to make sure that you feel welcome,” Hieronimus says.

Principal Hieronimus’ message is echoed district-wide, Kirk Zeeck says. 

“We’re all in this together. The pandemic has caused a ripple across the world and in reaction we are trying to be proactive to help kids learn the best that they can and that takes everyone together, from teachers, administrators, custodians, lunch ladies, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles the community, the business community. Everyone together,” Zeeck says.

Feeling connected during these uncertain times is important. It’s the reason Danielle McClure established a Facebook page for all Virtual Academy parents of students who belong to the same public Spanish Immersion program as her sons. 

“I feel everything’s going to be OK. I feel like there are a lot of us in the same boat, ” McClure says.

Through the Facebook community, Danielle hopes families can support one another and keep kids connected as well. 

To check out what Virtual Academy curriculum looks like, visit the COVID Resource Link at the Sioux Falls School District website, www.sd.k12.us.