Seattle Public Schools will launch virtual option for grades 6-12

Two and a half months into the school year, Seattle Public Schools is preparing to launch a new, virtual option for students in grades 6 through 12.

The school district started the school year only offering a virtual option for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. That initial decision not to offer it for the older students was criticized by some parents earlier in the fall.

Aaron and Kathleen Olson wanted their daughters Stella and Olivia to do third grade remotely through SPS. But there was a catch, they said.

“We wanted to return after they were vaccinated, the kiddos,” Aaron Olson said. “But they said you had to be in the program the whole year.”

“That was a no-go for us,” Kathleen Olson said. “The kids miss their friends.”

Instead, they transferred them out of SPS to attend Washington Connections Academy, a public online school.

It’s why Aaron and Kathleen Olson were a bit skeptical about SPS’s latest online undertaking: virtual school for grades 6 through 12, partnering with the company Edgenuity.

It’s the same situation: students will have to stay in it for the rest of the year. They can request a transfer to in-person learning at the school they want before that, but it’s not guaranteed and is subject to availability.

KIRO 7 asked why the district has that requirement.

SPS said while there are exceptions, operational efficiency is a high priority, and “the staffing commitment to provide VOPP is substantial… there is a sort of equilibrium between students and staffing. Any family request for a change will be considered and evaluated appropriately.”

The timing of the launch, the Olsons said, is odd, too.

“It’s confusing to me that they would launch something like that for sixth grade and up this late in the game,” Aaron Olson said.

Dr. Caleb Perkins with SPS said it’s happening now because of a group of families who’ve asked for this for months.

“It was continuing to hear from those families -- that they wanted something within Seattle Public Schools,” Perkins said. “There’s also access to extracurriculars they would have as being a part of Seattle Public Schools.”

Unlike the K through 5 version, this will be asynchronous, requiring that students learn independently at a whole other level.

Perkins said they aim to launch it this month.

“The trick is we want to make sure everything is well set up,” he said. “It’s not just students logging into an online system. There’s going to be academic interventionists, there’s going to be counseling supports.”

SPS said 80 students want to enroll right now.

“Do you anticipate having all the spaces to meet demand?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.

“I think ultimately we believe we can meet the demand that currently exists,” he said. “It is going to be challenging if the demand surges for some reason to meet it in this existing option because right now there’s only 300 spaces.”

“As we look to opening this up with older students, we need to make sure that our parent partners are front and center in the work that we are doing,” Principal Janine Roy said. She’s been overseeing the K-5 Virtual Option Pilot Program. “They’re the experts on their child.”

The Olsons said Stella and Olivia are close to getting back to a real classroom; they got their first vaccine doses last weekend.

They said there’s no rule they’ve found against transferring out of SPS and back in, so that’s what they’ll be doing to get their kids back to in-person learning this school year.

“We didn’t want to run most of the marathon and then fall on our face right before the finish line,” Aaron Olson said.

SPS said the virtual option for grades 6 through 12 will cost about $1.6 million. Most of that will come from federal pandemic aid money; the rest, about $400,000, will come from the general fund.

The district has posted more information about the virtual expansion to grades 6-12 on its website.