Perception and Staffing: How Two Districts Discovered the Winning Combination for Virtual School Success

November 30, 2021
Happy teenage boy learning

For most students, the pandemic was the first time they participated in virtual learning, and those who thrived in an online environment were in no rush to head back to a traditional classroom. As districts began to recognize the impact digital learning had on their students’ success, they raced to revamp their current digital programs—or construct a new virtual school from scratch.

If you hit a few hurdles when adopting or expanding your virtual programs this year, you’re not alone. In our recent webinar, You Launched a New Virtual School: Now What?, Lisa Valdes of Fullerton Joint Union High School District in California and Michael Watson of Frederick County Virtual School in Maryland shared the challenges they faced when creating new learning options, how they overcame them, and recommendations for those districts who continue to struggle.

According to Lisa and Mike, there are two key issues districts need to take into account as they move forward: defining exactly what virtual learning is and successfully staffing their schools.


Perception of virtual schools

One of the biggest challenges both educators found was that digital learning terminology means different things to each stakeholder, including administrators, teachers, and parents.

As Lisa explained, virtual learning encompasses interactive activities, ongoing assessments, and long-term support for students as opposed to online learning, a more passive model of learning in which students read digitized paper lessons and watch videos. Yet, districts regularly flip-flopped between terms, so virtual learning continues to been seen as an emergency response rather than a robust model for independent learning.

When virtual learning is clearly defined, districts can better address the challenges they face in a variety of ways, including:

  • Setting expectations for students and parents – During the pandemic, a student’s day may have included a few Zoom check-ins and online assignments. However, with virtual learning’s interactivity and scaffolds, the bar has been set much higher for students who choose to learn independently or through a hybrid model. Frederick County Virtual School helped ensure everyone was on the same page by having families fill out agreements on expectations, scheduling follow-up meetings through the year, and hosting virtual school nights.
  • Ensuring virtual learning is the right option for students – There are several factors that have driven students online this past year, from the fear of returning to the classroom to a preference for learning at home. Understanding a student’s motivation for virtual learning and their academic background allow counselors to have more meaningful conversations with families about the challenges of independent instruction and the steps their student will have to take to maintain progress in their courses.
  • Overcoming the belief that success only happens in the classroom – One of the statements Mike heard repeatedly from educators was that schools had to get students back into buildings. However, virtual learning has demonstrated that education doesn’t have to look the same for every student – it just has to engage them. And when resources are devoted to different learning modalities, students who’ve struggled in traditional classroom settings triumph online.


Staffing considerations

Not surprisingly, both districts grappled with staffing, especially when enrollment fluctuated. Lisa shared that in her district, as COVID numbers rose – even in states thousands of miles away – there would be an influx of new enrollees, forcing teachers to hit the ground running and learn along the way.

The ideal situation, she explained, was to build up staff with the thought that the students will come. However, finding staff with a mindset for virtual learning is imperative. “Classroom teaching and digital teaching are not the same at all…You can hurt a student by just pulling anybody in and placing them in the program.”

Virtual educators have to be highly trained in identifying the social-emotional issues their students may be experiencing, working with students who are struggling, and understanding the rigorous documentation requirements involved with independent learning to ensure their students’ progress.

For Mike, ensuring their virtual school was fully staffed meant hiring within the district first and then expanding to teachers outside Maryland. While the district was on the fence initially, the ability to bring new teachers on board as needed worked out well for the benefit of students.

To listen to the full webinar, visit

Subscribe to our Blog+

Subscribe to receive the latest from the Apex Learning blog.