When Susana Moro was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia nearly four years ago, a faith-based virtual school in South Florida allowed her daughter to stay home with her mom while keeping up with her schoolwork.
“She felt very comfortable and loved the classes,” said Moro, who underwent a successful bone marrow transplant and is now healthy. Her daughter, who had been a sophomore at Immaculata-LaSalle High School, did so well at Archdiocese of Miami Catholic Virtual School that she opted to stay and graduate, Moro said.
Since then, Moro’s younger daughter enrolled in the Catholic virtual school as an eighth grader to take a high-school level Spanish class.
And now, during the coronavirus pandemic, the school is helping families in Florida and beyond who want an online Catholic education for their children, although school leaders stress their goal is to complement in-person Catholic schools rather than compete with them.
“We expect most of these students to return to their brick and mortar schools,” principal Rebeca Bautista said.
Founded in 2013 when it served only a handful of students, the Catholic virtual school was created to support traditional Catholic schools by allowing high school students to take courses that were not available on campus, get remedial instruction and bank extra credits, as well as serve those whose participation in sports or other activities required frequent travel.
Earlier this year, the school added kindergarten through fifth grade, bringing its enrollment this year to about 800. Most students attend part time.
“Our mission is to ensure that Catholic education is not only on the cutting edge but setting the pace and establishing new educational models to inspire students to maximize their God-given gifts resulting in transformation,” Thomas Wenski, Archbishop of Miami, wrote in an announcement letter to families when the school opened. The letter stressed it was important that “all Catholic schools keep pace with the demands of the 21sth century.”
The Catholic virtual school is fully accredited by the global non-profit accreditation organization Cognia and uses only teachers who are certified to work in Catholic schools. Powered by Florida Virtual School, the state’s 23-year-old online public school, it has infused Florida Virtual School content with Catholic faith and values perspectives, such as prayers before classes and references to God and church teachings. The virtual platform also includes theology courses that school leaders developed from scratch.
“We have ability to edit the content and enrich it,” said Marcey Ayers, director of special programs in the Office of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Miami. “They know that it’s a Catholic course they are taking.”
Like other virtual schools across the country, Archdiocese of Miami Catholic Virtual School has received more attention as families flocked to online education after COVID-19 forced campus shutdowns. Over the summer, the school got 10 to 12 calls a day from families seeking options. As the pandemic continued into August, the Catholic virtual school stepped up for traditional Catholic schools.
It offered them the use of their courses, taught by fully certified Archdiocese of Miami Catholic Virtual School teachers, as an online option for students not ready to return in person. It also offered its online curriculum to traditional schools’ faculty so they could deliver customized online lessons.
“Being able to offer this virtual school was really a blessing to us,” said Todd Orlando, principal of Bishop Kenny Catholic High School in Jacksonville. The school pivoted to distance learning in the spring, but when it became apparent the pandemic would continue into the new school year, leaders decided it would be more efficient to let a virtual school handle the virtual option than to require its faculty to teach both formats simultaneously.
“We are a brick-and-mortar school. We are not a virtual school,” Orlando said. “These people know what they’re doing.”
He added that school leaders also were attracted to the fact that Archdiocese of Miami Catholic Virtual School courses reflect the church’s teachings.
“We wanted a Catholic option for our families,” he said. “We realized their curriculum mirrored ours in each and every way. It’s been a positive and smooth transition for us.”
Of the 1,264 students enrolled this year at Bishop Kenny, 44 chose the virtual option.
Families with students who receive state scholarships including the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship can take classes through the Catholic virtual school during the pandemic as long as they are enrolled in a brick-and-mortar Catholic school, thanks to the waiving of a state rule that had required scholarship recipients to be taught primarily in person.
(Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, is the state’s largest administrator of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students.)
“It’s been an odd year,” Bautista said, explaining that most of the inquires she received over the summer came from families who had children with underlying health conditions or who lived with elderly relatives. Other calls came from international families planning to move to the United States but whose visas got delayed due to the pandemic. Other families wanted the chance to watch how campus re-openings went before committing to sending their children back.
“Some families made it very clear their intention was to only enroll for the first semester,” Bautista said. “They are hoping by January or the end of the first quarter they can go back to campus. Some said they might do a whole year and have a virtual year.”
That’s fine with her. The virtual school operates on a semester system, has a pool of part-time certified teachers, and is used to being nimble. They also see their primary purpose as supporting traditional Catholic schools.
“If a school calls and says, ‘This is an issue that we have, can you help us,’ 99.9 percent of the time, we say, ‘Yes, we can,’” Bautista said. “We don’t have a minimum enrollment. If one student from one school needs Algebra I, we can offer it.”
Virtual school leaders want to ensure continued growth by raising awareness and offering new programs, such as recently launched theology classes for adults. COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for Catholic schools to extend their reach, especially as people become more comfortable learning online, Bautista said.
“We’re expanding our marketing for the school to reach everyone,” said Ayers, the special program director for the archdiocese. “We are going to meet the needs of all students – not just gifted or special needs students, but all students.”