Parents scrambling after Jacksonville charter school announces end of virtual learning

Jacksonville Classical Academy (Screenshot via Facebook)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Parents with students at Jacksonville Classical Academy, a charter school in Mixon Town, said they were surprised to learn that the school made the decision to end its virtual learning program starting in January.

The decision to move students back into classrooms full time comes as cases of the coronavirus continue to skyrocket in the state, and parents who spoke to News4Jax said they are concerned for their children’s safety.

The leader of the school said the decision was made after more parents made the decision to move students back into school and the school struggles to find teachers to lead virtual classes.

Kim Trotter’s daughter is in sixth grade at the school and is high-risk for the virus due to multiple medical conditions. She’s been in virtual learning since the start of the school year, but on Jan. 5, following Christmas break, all students at the school are being asked to return to campus.

“Had I known that this decision to bring them back, the parents wouldn’t have a choice, I don’t think I would have chosen the charter schools if I knew it works differently,” Trotter said.

Duval County Public Schools, along with other local public school districts, continue to offer virtual learning after an emergency order issued by the state was extended.

Jacksonville Classical Academy became the center of attention in October when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran visited the school and held a news conference.

DeSantis, who stood with school leaders and did not wear a mask, praised the school and its handling of the pandemic. DeSantis added that school closures “should be off the table” if outbreaks occur and continued to advocate for students to return to classrooms. But DeSantis has also repeatedly said that parents should have the option for virtual learning.

The decision to end virtual learning at the school was made shortly before DeSantis’ visit.

Dr. David Withun, head of school at Jacksonville Classical Academy — a school that is affiliated with conservative Hillsdale College, which is funded by GOP donor John Rood, according to Florida Politics — told News4Jax that when the school year started, about 90 of the 456 students were enrolled in virtual learning. As of Friday, Withun said there are less than 60.

Trotter said there are still about 13 students in her daughter’s virtual class.

“I understand fears, and I understand, you know, the various individual circumstances of teachers and students,” Withun said. “But I have to make a decision that’s based in the facts of the situation. What the facts are, this is not serving students as well as they need to be served. And that we don’t have the staffing and the numbers to make it work. And that the leading experts in disease are telling us that this is the right choice.”

DeSantis has referenced similar studies saying the risks for students to contract the virus is low, but doctors have warned that students as young as 10 are capable of contracting and transmitting the coronavirus.

“They keep saying that those numbers are low in kids, but mine is that one, you know, that’s my concern,” Trotter said. “I’m not asking for a permanent thing. I agree that she needs to be in school. I just disagree that the timing is all wrong. Bringing the kids back after the Christmas holiday is just, to me, a bad decision.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses school closures during a press conference at Jacksonville Classical Academy alongside Head of School Dr. David Withun in October. (Copyright 2020 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

On Sunday, the Florida Department of Health reported nearly 9,000 new cases of the coronavirus. Recent case numbers have been on par with the July peak of cases.

Bernadette Smith has a granddaughter who attends second-grade classes at the school. After hearing the school was ending virtual learning, she and her daughter made the decision to move her granddaughter to Florida Virtual School. Her main concern centers around the fact that the school does not require masks for students or teachers.

“So you bringing all the kids in at one time, and you also go on to say masks is not a requirement at the same time. I realize that at some point that we need to get back into school, but it needs to make masks mandatory,” Smith said.

Withun said students do not wear masks while in cohorts at the school, but they do while they are in other parts of the school.

“The important part is that we are doing it together. We are not doing it via video screen, we are not doing with plexiglass between us, we are not doing it six feet away from each other, but that we are doing it in a way that is both reasonable and safe and meets the needs of all of our students,” Withun said during the October news conference.

Some of the parents questioned if the decision by the school is political.

“If folks think that this is a political decision, I would suspect that they probably need to get to know me a bit better,” Withun said. “This is definitely not a political decision.”

Both Smith and Trotter said they like the teachers and curriculum at the school, but safety is the issue.

Another parent who spoke with News4Jax said she also had concerns about returning to school but after speaking with Withun, she feels comfortable sending her child back. But she is still thinking about holding her out for two weeks after the return from Christmas break.

Withun said the school has had four confirmed cases since the start of the school year, two in students and two in staff.

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