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story.lead_photo.caption During Wednesday evening's Fulton Public Schools Board of Education meeting, the board heard from Susan Goldammer of the Missouri School Board Association. Photo by Olivia Garrett / Fulton Sun.

As the end of the semester approaches, Fulton families are evaluating how both in-person and virtual learning worked for them.

Most of the hundreds of families in Fulton inspired by the pandemic to try out virtual education are learning through Launch, a program created by Springfield Public Schools.

"Previous to this year, we had some really positive experiences with Launch," Fulton Public Schools superintendent Ty Crain said. "But this year, Launch definitely had a lot of struggles, but it was due to sheer numbers."

Any in-seat student who would like to move to virtual learning for the second semester must indicate their interest by noon Wednesday by filling out a form.

The district evaluates those requests based on whether it believes it is in the best educational interest of the student. Similarly, some students who opted for virtual learning this semester might end up back in the classroom come January.

Crain said the district has proven it can educate students safely in-person — though district buildings have pivoted temporarily to distance learning, it was due to staff quarantine numbers, not student case counts.

"And so I think you'll see some parents decide, you know what? I do think at this point, I can bring my kid back in-person," Crain said. "Or maybe, that this virtual experience just wasn't what they thought it was going to be."

During Wednesday evening's Fulton Public Schools Board of Education meeting, the board heard from Susan Goldammer of the Missouri School Board Association, who discussed concerns about the growth of virtual education in Missouri.

Though the pandemic has pushed more students than ever out of the classroom and onto the computer, virtual learning was already on the rise both in Missouri and across the country. Beginning with the 2019-20 school year, the state created a catalog of online courses for students called the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program.

State law allows MOCAP providers to charge tuition fees up to the $6,375 state adequacy target — that amounts to $446.25 per semester course. The state adequacy target is the amount the state estimates is necessary to adequately educate a Missouri student.

"Now, keep in mind that number (the state adequacy target) was created for brick and mortar schools with counselors and food service programs and custodians and extracurricular activities and the staff to run all of that and electric bills— all of that," Goldammer said. "But these providers are allowed to charge that amount even though they don't have the buildings and buses and counselors and food service."

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According to Goldammer, vendors like Missouri Virtual Academy, or MOVA, and Missouri Connections Academy, of MOCA, are charging the full amount.

MOVA is a K12 program — K12 is a for-profit company. MOCA is also for-profit, owned by Pearson, Inc., a textbook company.

A key point of Goldammer's presentation was that at the same time some virtual providers are profiting off of fees public school districts are required to pay, virtual schools have not always reported good outcomes for students.

A 2015 study from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students in online charter schools had weaker academic growth in math and reading.

"Universally, the studies are showing significantly lower performance in virtual schools than in traditional public schools," Goldammer said.

According to the 2019 report, the virtual schools that produce the best results are operated by school districts, like Launch, instead of for-profit operators.

Goldammer said MOCAP has transparency issues. School districts are accountable for the performance of virtual students, even though they aren't the ones providing the education. Not all virtual providers are forthcoming about curriculum or teachers, making it difficult for districts to determine whether the virtual program is in the best educational interest of the student.

"Remember, these companies, they have their curriculum — well, they don't want to share it with anybody," Goldammer said. "They're making money off of their curriculum. They don't want to share the curriculum. The school districts are saying, 'Well, how are we supposed to determine if this is in the best interest of students if we don't even know what they're teaching?'"

Goldammer said MSBA is concerned about what it has seen from lawmakers related to this issue.

"But what we are critically concerned about at the Missouri School Board Association is that the intent of this legislation all along was to create virtual charter schools with no school district input," Goldammer said. "And in fact, right before the pandemic closed down the legislature in the spring, there were two bills introduced to do just that."

Goldammer said she appreciated the Fulton school board's interest in learning more about the issues related to MOCAP.

"I think some of these things are kept intentionally vague to make it difficult to explain to the average person and quite honestly, I worry that parents and students are being snowed with fancy advertising and not much else," Goldammer said.

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