Virtual education provider rebounds after enrollments exceeded expectations

As more parents opt for their children to learn virtually amid the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual learning programs have struggled to keep up due to massive influxes of students.

Launch, a virtual learning program currently used by about 18 percent of students in the Jefferson City School District, has about 100,000 more course enrollments than it did last year.

Launch serves more than 330 school districts in Missouri, and each district gave Launch an initial estimate of how many students they expected to enroll in the program - but it was significantly more than expected, Launch Director Nichole Lemmon said.

"I think for everyone in the state of Missouri, the influx of virtual learners far exceeded our initial projection, and so meeting the demand for parents in our really short timeline has certainly had its challenges," Lemmon said.

Launch is based in Springfield Public Schools and partners with school districts statewide to offer students access to the program. The courses are aligned to Missouri Learning Standards and created by Springfield Public Schools curriculum specialists, teachers and digital developers. All Launch teachers are certified teachers in Missouri.

At this time last year, Launch had about 20,000 course enrollments. Now, it has more than 120,000.

JC Schools has more students in its virtual education program than 75 percent of districts in Missouri have in their entire district, according to Dawn Berhorst, the district's director of student information, planning and assessment.

Of the 1,381 JC Schools students enrolled in Launch, 485 are in high school, 384 are in middle school and 512 are in elementary school, JC Schools Communications Director Ryan Burns said.

All Launch partner districts are charged a one-time joining fee based on K-12 size. JC Schools is paying $3 million for Launch this year, according to an operating budget amendment document in the Aug. 10 Board of Education meeting agenda.

Offering a virtual option required JC Schools to quickly develop a separate enrollment process and revamp all student schedules, Berhorst said. The district also set up additional communications channels, including a dedicated phone number (573-659-3015) and email address ([email protected]) to assist with Launch questions from parents and students.

"Preparing to offer a virtual education option has been a tremendous amount of work, but we are committed to meeting the needs of all of our students," she said. "The counselors and principals in our district have worked hard to communicate with parents about the challenges of online learning."

Many students and families enrolled in Launch experienced problems during the first few weeks - many hadn't been assigned teachers or classes, elementary students hadn't received workbooks, some students received their log-in information late, some had Chromebooks that didn't work, and customer and technical support had long wait times.

JC Schools has a point of contact in each building who monitors what students are doing in Launch and reaches out to students who are having problems or not making progress. Staff members are contacting families of students who have not engaged with Launch at all, Berhorst said.

In a letter to families, Launch apologized for any frustrations families have experienced due to the unexpected number of students enrolled.

"Unfortunately, your first experience with Launch may have been far from desirable," the letter states. "Please know that we understand all of this, and we are doing all we can to support your child."

These problems were resolved within a few weeks as students and families settled into a routine and Launch hired and assigned teachers and hired support staff and administrators to answer calls and address questions and concerns.

A few days before the first day of school, JC Schools decided to delay the start virtual education for K-5 students by a week because Launch was experiencing delays due to an elementary teacher staffing shortage.

"We felt it would be better for all of our JC Schools students to start on the same date rather than having students start on different dates based on when their teachers are assigned," Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Lorie Rost said at the time.

Some secondary students also had not been assigned certain teachers due to the unexpected number of students enrolled.

Because of the flexibility and self-pacing of Launch, these students aren't necessarily behind.

"Please note that your child will NOT be behind," the letter from Launch states. "Teachers will get everyone on pace."

The staffing shortage and students not being assigned teachers happened due to last-minute fluctuations in student counts. Any student enrolled in Launch before the first day of school Aug. 24 had been assigned a teacher on the first day, but Launch had to hire more teachers and assign teachers to students who enrolled after Aug. 24, Lemmon said. These students had to wait up to five days to be assigned a teacher.

To continue following the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's class size recommendations, Launch had to hire more teachers. The classes range from 20-50 students depending on the type of class, and its average class size is 27 students, Lemmon said.

By the week of Sept. 7, all Launch students had been assigned teachers. The week before that, Launch was almost caught up but had to continue to hire because the program continued to take enrollment. For the first time ever, Launch had to pause additional enrollments while it hired more staff.

Launch hired more than 400 additional teachers, Lemmon said. One reason it was able to hire so many teachers so quickly was because of Gov. Mike Parson's approval of DESE's request to temporarily waive the 550-hour work limit for retired educators.

This limit was waived to help alleviate the potential shortage of substitute teachers and school support staff members during the 2020-21 school year. The waiver allowed Launch to recruit teachers from the Missouri Retired Teachers Association.

"That change to allow retirees to come back on a full-time status really played to our benefit," Lemmon said.

Partner districts also helped recruit adjunct teachers and promoted the teaching positions to their retirees, she added.

When Launch suddenly stopped accepting elementary enrollments just four days before the first day of school, JC Schools decided to move seven of its elementary teachers into Launch teaching positions so the students who had requested virtual learning but could not be placed with Launch could enroll. The Jefferson City district moved 180 students into these virtual classes.

These seven teachers also taught through Launch during summer school. They are still paid by the Jefferson City district and not by Launch, Burns said.

Each year has challenges, Lemmon said - and just like this year, it typically takes a few weeks for them to be resolved.

"The beginning of the year always comes with challenges," she said. "This year, they're just in a different way."

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