CCS to close K-8 Virtual Academy, cites financial changes


Chatham County Schools announced on Feb. 1 it intends to close its K-8 Virtual Academy at the end of the school year, saying budgetary changes and declining enrollment made the school unsustainable.

The K-8 Virtual Academy, which began in 2020 as a fully remote learning option, is operated through Bennett School. It will remain open until the end of the school year, but will not be renewed for the 2023-2024 school year.

“While the virtual academy program in K-8 has been successful for some students, we have seen a decline in enrollment over the past year,” CCS Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson wrote in a letter to parents of Virtual Academy students. “Many families are more comfortable with students returning to their home base schools.”

Students in grades K-8 who wish to remain in CCS will need to return to their assigned zoned schools, the letter said. Those in high school (grades 9-12) will have the option to remain virtual through the 9-12 CCS Virtual Academy.

ESSER fund stretches

The reason for the discrepancy between the K-8 program and the high school program is that the K-8 Virtual Academy was originally established using funds from Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER). ESSER funds were emergency funds meant to help the district recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chatham County Schools has a total allotment of more than $21 million. Funds can be used to prevent, reduce or respond to COVID-19 in the classroom. To date CCS has spent $18.4 million of those ESSER funds, leaving $3 million to be spent by June 30, 2024. Those funds, however, don’t come in a lump sum, according to CCS Assistant Superintendent Dr. Amanda Moran. She said the funds often have conditions attached and can only be used for certain purposes or on set timelines.

The ESSER funds used to support the K-8 Virtual Academy are ending in June 2023. Without those funds, CCS won’t have the budget to keep the academy open.

Meanwhile, the high school Virtual Academy, which is operated through Chatham Central High School, has been in place since 2018, before the pandemic or ESSER funds. That means the high school Virtual Academy would not require additional funding or staffing to continue operations.

“Chatham County Schools continues to provide quality educational programs and services in each of our K-5, 6-8, and K-8 schools and we stand ready to support your child moving forward,” Jackson’s letter said.

Budget shifts

The estimated cost of the Virtual Academy is more than $830,000, most of which is staffing expense. The academy now has an enrollment of fewer than 50 students. While the district could fund the program through ESSER, Moran said without those funds it’s not feasible. 

The Virtual Academy wasn’t intended to be an indefinite solution, but rather a solution to a temporary need that would be evaluated as needed, she said. As time has gone on, the district has seen an increase in staffing shortages, which makes filling gaps at the Virtual Academy even harder.

The other challenge that stretched CCS’s ESSER funding was a state-approved salary increase for staff that Moran said the district didn’t anticipate. While some of that funding came from the state, CCS has positions that extend beyond state requirements that have to be funded locally, and they require the same raises.

“There were lots of budget unknowns that we could not have predicted,” Moran said. “Those things that have stretched our ESSER funding have made certain programs we wanted to continue no longer financially feasible — and that includes more than the Virtual Academy, unfortunately.”

Alternative options

Jackson’s letter also listed options for K-8 students who wish to remain virtual. Those include the North Carolina Virtual Academy, an online school based in Durham, and N.C. Virtual Public School, a public virtual school run through the state.

One of the main benefits of the Virtual Academy is the friendships it created. Moran said parents have lauded the Virtual Academy for forming bonds between similar-aged students who live in the same vicinity. There are, however, several options for students who benefited from the structure of the CCS Virtual Academy, according to Moran.

The district offers homebound instruction, where students with medical needs are given instruction by a teacher in their home. Moran said that could be paired with other options, including the ability to join the base school class for outside events and field trips or joining virtual sessions for things like morning meetings and other social activities in a more controlled way depending on the student’s medical status.

“We serve students with a variety of medical needs,” Moran told the News + Record. “Staff are trained to meet unique needs and additional support could be provided if needed for care.”

She said the district remains flexible and prepared to meet the needs of all existing students, regardless of circumstance. Other options include full in-school instruction with medical support or a hybrid approach with a mix of homebound instruction and in-person modified instruction.

“If families determine that a fully virtual option outside of CCS is best for their family, we stand ready to help with that transition and will support in any way that we can,” Moran said.

CCS said current Virtual Academy families who have unique or compelling circumstances may reach out to Moran to learn more about other services and supports the district may be able to offer in unique circumstances. She can be reached at

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at or on Twitter @b_rappaport

Chatham County Schools, Virtual Academy, ESSER funds, virtual learning