Connecticut legislators recently went on a field trip to a Massachusetts classroom that had no students.
They walked into a physical school building, up a set of stairs and into an open space filled with cubicles. In those cubicles? Teachers who were conducting live virtual classes.
Superintendent Patrick Lattuca was the tour guide. He said anything that a brick-and-mortar school has, the virtual school has, too.
“Over here is where our live lessons are happening, where students and teachers are interacting in their classes,” Lattuca said. “When we renovate and build the capacity of our space, we’re going to have live lesson classrooms where it has green screen technology so we can have all the bells and whistles here. You’re going to experience a live lesson, but that’s what all these areas are right now.”
State Rep. Bobby Sanchez of New Britain was sold. Connecticut doesn’t have a program like this. And he thinks it should.
“It went beyond my expectations, to tell you the truth,” Sanchez said. “We have teachers and teachers unions back in Connecticut that are concerned, but they’re basically talking more about the hybrid model where teachers were teaching in the classroom with students present and doing remote. This is different. This is a unique program where you’re doing specifically everything through remote.”
The program is called TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School (TECCA), a tuition-free K-12 public school in East Walpole, Mass., that opened its doors in 2014 with 200 students and 14 staff members. The idea behind it was to give students throughout Massachusetts a different learning option. Now enrollment has skyrocketed to 2,700 students with a waitlist in the thousands. Staff has also increased to 190, including teachers, counselors and social workers.
TECCA is state-certified and was approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Lattuca also said that it’s important to recognize that education isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario and that virtual schooling gives some students a chance that they wouldn’t get anywhere else — while not challenging the traditional school system.
“It used to be where it looked like we were a threat, like there’s a competition. But I’ve always looked at it as what’s in the best interest of students,” Lattuca said. “And now we’re looking at different districts are now coaching out students, saying this model would be a great fit for you, and they’re very successful here.”
Who are those students? The school attracts a wide array of learners who seek a flexible academic environment. They range from former home-schooled students, athletes, performers, students with social and/or emotional anxieties, families dealing with health and safety concerns, and teenagers who have to work to support their families.
Since TECCA is mainly remote to begin with, the pandemic didn’t cause major disruptions. Laptops and Wi-Fi access are also provided for all students who need them. TECCA ranks high in advance placement students, and parents hope to enroll their children because of the school’s well-rounded support system. Students are glad to have undisrupted online classes.
All that said, the shutdown highlighted not only the challenges that students had to go through in general but also that those same challenges were extra stressful to immunocompromised families. So the idea of having a Connecticut-based virtual academy excites Jennie Beth, a mother of two school-age children. Her family is medically compromised, making in-person school a potential threat to their health.
“For families like mine, this is the next step and a positive step. It was kind of like the light at the end of the tunnel that there’s this wonderful option that’s time-tested and a quality curriculum,” she said.
It’s not only a way to protect her family, but it also helps students and parents across the state to socially connect in a way that’s never happened.
“All the virtual schools and I’m sure whoever comes to Connecticut eventually curriculum-wise will be wonderful and great, but it’s that social piece that I truly feel is going to be one of the biggest benefits for our state,” Beth said.
Special education and general education teachers also work together to make sure students have the support they need. Small group instruction is available, and with the ability to have both live and offline classes, the flexibility allows students to learn without the stress of needing to be at a certain place at a specific time.
Director of Special Education Terri Green said that over 500 of TECCA’s students have individualized education programs. It comes as no surprise that TECCA has a larger number of special education students compared to a traditional school, and the number of applicants continues to rise.
Green said that it’s always a challenge to meet those unique needs but that their teachers are qualified to help students in a virtual space.
“All special ed teachers are Massachusetts-certified special education teachers that choose to apply and come work for us virtually,” Green said.
If a virtual school setting can give students a comfortable place to learn and succeed, Sanchez said he is all for it.
“We want to make sure that all our children in the state of Connecticut get the education that they deserve and need,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez plans to present a proposal to the General Assembly in the near future.