HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — The pandemic caused schools across the country to flex their education muscles very differently. Hampton City Schools decided to take that flex to another level by creating what it calls a virtual learning revolution.

“It’s called the Future Learning Experience or the FLEx program,” said Dr. Kate Maxlow, Director of Innovation and Professional Learning for Hampton City Schools.

She says school leaders are excited about their new, free, virtual learning venture for students in grades K-5.

“We really wanted to be able to write our own curriculum and have our students experience virtual learning in a new way that we knew could bring learning to life in ways that it hasn’t been done before.”

Dr. Maxlow says she can’t wait for students to check out some new aspects of virtual learning through FLEx.

“We’re going to have things like escape rooms and puzzle quests and role plays, just make it as exciting as it can possibly be with these adventure storylines that kids will experience from week to week that will tie together everything they’re learning in language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies,” Dr. Maxlow said.

While you can choose if your child learns mostly in the morning or in the afternoon, Dr. Maxlow emphasizes parents, or guardians, will be very involved.

“That’s part of the reason we created this program was for families who do want more of a say in their child’s education, who want to be able to pick some of the activities, who want to be able to say, ‘You know what? We’re going to take a paint class at 1 p.m. every day,’ and that’s perfectly allowable under this.”

Dr. Maxlow says the schedule is one of the ways FLEx is different from Virtual Virginia and Edgenuity.

“You’re online for mostly either in the morning or mostly either in the afternoon. It’s a lot of small groups. There’s very few whole group things that happen so that the teachers have more of that instruction. In kindergarten and first grade, students are only online for about 110 minutes a day, but twice a week they have a one on one lesson, 15 minute lesson, with a teacher, and that’s so the teacher can really work closely with the student, and with the families to see how your student is doing, what else do you need, what’s working for you, what’s not. Then, we also supply a treasure trove of virtual asynchronous activities, virtual and hands on. Most of those are game based. So, for instance, we don’t want kids just doing worksheets all the time or just online all the time. So, we have games that you can play at your kitchen table. Games that you can play in your car, and we send out a lot of these materials. They have experiments that you can be doing at home with lots of different projects, and the families get to choose from these things rather than us saying you must do X. We have a bunch of different things all on the same standard and they can pick what they want to do. Nobody’s online for more than three hours and we do, of course, take breaks throughout. As you get older, I think the longest amount of time is two hours and fifty minutes that anybody is online with breaks between. K and 1 are going to be a little bit shorter. 2 and 3 we add a little bit more time, and 4 and 5 we add that extra time, getting up to about three hours, but no more than that.”

FLEx teachers are Hampton City Schools teachers.

“We are actually currently hiring, and this is one of the exciting things, because you don’t have to live in Hampton, or even be able to commute to Hampton, in order for you to apply for this program. All you need is a Virginia teaching license, a stable internet connection, and the ability to be up during the hours that we offer the program. So, we have had teachers applying from all different places,” said Dr. Maxlow.

Hampton City Schools decided it was best to start FLEx virtual learning with K-5 students rather than K-12.

“We really want to get this right, and we want to ensure the highest quality possible. The curriculum that we are creating takes a long time. I’ve spent about five hours on an escape room over the weekend, and I’m still not quite done with it. We do have plans to roll out 6 through 8, and then, of course, 9 through 12 in the upcoming years.”

Watch: Hampton Schools’ Dr. Kate Maxlow explains escape room virtual learning lesson

Dr. Maxlow says the goal is make FLEx a permanent program. However, in year one, the school system is limiting the number of students in the program to 108.

“We are limiting it to one class per grade level this upcoming year. So, 16 K and 1 students, 18 for grades 2 and 3, and 20 for grades 4 and 5. We really want to be able to have wraparound support for our teachers so that we can provide all of the professional learning they need so that we can help them go through lessons, and help acclimate them to this new way of learning. By starting small, we can ensure the greatest amount of quality for the program. Then we can build out and up for the next years.”

If more students apply than there are spaces available, Dr. Maxlow tells WAVY.com there will be a lottery system where names will be pulled randomly. No qualifications, like grades or test scores, are needed to apply.

“We will be offering special education services, gifted services, English language learner services.”

If your child lives within Hampton City Schools limits, Dr. Maxlow says the school system will provide a Chromebook for your child, and it will work to get you free or discounted internet service through Cox.

As for school hours? Dr. Maxlow says FLEx students are required to complete the same amount of learning hours as students in school.

“It is very important for us to make sure that we follow the standards of quality from the Virginia Department of Education and the General Assembly. So, we have very carefully calculated the number of minutes they are online with the number of asynchronous or independent activities that they are doing, and they have a spreadsheet that they have to keep up every week that tells us exactly what they did and for how many minutes they did it so that we can ensure that we are meeting those 330 minutes per day.”

State testing will also be part of your child’s school year.

“Any tested grade levels, they will still have to take the SOLs. That is the one time that they do have to come on the Hampton City Schools campus throughout the entire year. That’s a requirement from the Virginia Department of Education.”

Dr. Maxlow is happy with the response so far.

“We’ve had lots of parents signing up saying this is exactly what my child needs.”

Dr. Maxlow says it is important to remember, while some students learn best in person while others learn best online.

“It’s not about trying to fit all students in to one platform. It’s about having multiple platforms that meet the needs of all of our students.”

Applications for Hampton’s FLEx program are due by May.

WAVY.com looked into what virtual plans, if any, other local schools have in place for the next school year. Here’s what we learned:

Chesapeake City Schools

Chesapeake City Schools created Chesapeake Virtual Academy. CVA is for students in grades K-12. All CVA teachers will be employed by Chesapeake Public Schools according to Richie Babb, Supervisor of Public Relations for CPS.

Suffolk City Schools

For the 2022-2023 school year, Suffolk Public Schools will offer SPS Online: a fully online, virtual learning program for students in grades K-12 who prefer to learn in the virtual environment. Students utilizing this option will be taught through third party virtual vendors, by qualified teachers, attend on the traditional schedule, be eligible to participate in extracurricular activities, clubs, and organizations, and still be associated with their zoned school according to Anthonette Ward, Community Engagement Officer for SPS.

Applications for the program are being accepted NOW – April 22, 2022.

Newport News Public Schools

Newport News Public Schools launched a Virtual Learning Academy (VLA) this school year for high school students. The VLA is expanding next school year to include middle school students. NNPS is accepting student applications now for grades 6-12 for the 2022-2023 school year. The deadline to apply is March 16.

Web-based classes include core subject matter content such as English, math, science and history as well as electives, special education services, and Advanced Placement (AP) courses. The VLA include a blend of synchronous (live) and asynchronous (independent) instruction led by NNPS teachers.

The NNPS VLA is a modern approach to remote learning that allows students to participate in extracurricular activities and athletics at their zoned school. The VLA also has strong community partnerships that permit our students to participate in meaningful learning and socially engaging field trips and activities.

A Family Information Webinar will be held on Wednesday, March 2, at 6 p.m. Click here for the Zoom link.

Portsmouth Public Schools

The school system plans to continue with Virtual Virginia.

Isle of Wight Public Schools

The school system plans to continue with Virtual Virginia.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools

“Virginia Beach City Public Schools is still exploring options for next school year,” according to Sondra Woodward, Public Relations Coordinator for VBCPS.