LUSK – When COVID-19 forced school districts around the state to make the hasty and oftentimes clumsy shift to online learning in March, Wyoming Virtual Academy was already there.
The statewide education program runs out of an unlikely headquarters: a two-story structure in small-town Lusk, identified only by a small sign in the downstairs window.
WYVA, a program of Niobrara County School District No. 1 that uses the national K12 online curriculum, provides laptops, printers and curriculum materials to students at no cost, according to Head of School Joe Heywood.
Heywood has been in charge for three years, but the school has served Wyoming families for 11. At the time, online education was a novel concept. Now, it is almost a necessity, as evidenced by WYVA’s nearly tripled enrollment for the 2020-21 school year. Heywood estimates this time last year the school enrolled roughly 480 students. Now, they have nearly 1,100 with almost 400 in processing, and they hired an additional 30 teachers.
“Most of the families that we’re talking to as they come in, they’re just like we just didn’t want what we experienced in April and May,” Heywood said.
A school dedicated to exclusively virtual learning provides consistency in what is now an unpredictable world.
WYVA’s Middle School Lead Teacher, Jennifer Schultze said her homeroom consists of 48 new students who all said they transferred because of COVID-19 and newfound inconsistency of brick and mortar education.
“They didn’t want to be moved around from distance learning to half and half hybrid, or maybe getting started in the regular school and then someone gets COVID-19 and then they’re back to distance learning,” she said.
School district administrators and teachers around the state are working hard to accommodate both their in-person and remote learners, and they insist they are now more prepared than they were this past spring. Even still, virtual education is a new feat for them.
WYVA students are equipped with laptops and near-constant tech support offered through K12, Heywood said. Its teachers are state-certified and trained specifically in online teaching. The staff aims to create a social atmosphere that mirrors that of a brick and mortar school despite the computer screen and sometimes hundreds of miles that separate students and teachers from one another.
Schultze has taught at the school since its inception. She started her career teaching in-person, but after completing an online Masters program, she said she saw the perks of virtual education firsthand.
“I had some teachers that I loved the interaction they had with me as a student and I didn’t expect that,” Schultze said. “I didn’t expect that I would actually feel like I had a relationship with a teacher that was online.”
Schultze teaches music. The first question she usually gets, of course, is ‘how does that work?’
“In the virtual world, what music looks like is excellent,” she said. “Musicianship is way more than performing in a band or practicing for a concert. A lot of our classes in the brick and mortar world are completely 100% focused around performance. Think about the balance between performance and all the other areas of music: music technology, music theory, ethnomusicology, music history, and being able to tie all of those areas in with core content.”
Students also have opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities through WYVA. This year, Schultze said the middle school is establishing a student council, a National Junior Honor Society chapter and even a yearbook. If and when the threat of coronavirus is neutralized, they plan to return to in-person field trips around the state.
Though their education takes place in the virtual world, teachers and students weren’t completely spared from the effects of the pandemic. Schultze and Heywood both had children, who normally attend school in-person in their respective districts, suddenly at home all day trying to navigate remote education.
WYVA students’ education went unchanged, but personal struggles like family job loss, illness and siblings at home distracting them took a personal toll on some, which in turn affected their performance at school, according to Schultze.
“That was where we really were able to come along and support our online families is listening to those personal stories, and figuring out how we could still make the virtual world work for them in the middle of the pandemic while their whole personal life was also upended like ours were,” she said.
Shirley Zumbrennen enrolled two daughters, Gracie and Melody, now eighth and ninth graders, in WYVA three years ago. The Lusk resident said she chose the school for her children because of its rigorous curriculum and interactive teachers, but it especially proved to be the right choice when the pandemic struck in March.
“It was good going into this school year knowing we know how the system works, the teachers know what to expect, they know what to expect from the teachers and nothing will change, it’ll just keep going,” Zumbrennen said. “It was good not having to adjust to something last minute.”
Through this year’s “chaos” and uncertainty, WYVA is one constant, Zumbrennen said.
“It was a huge blessing knowing our girls had that stability and consistency, and knowing that every day was the same and nothing really changed for them,” she said.