COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTW) — In early 2020, officials with South Carolina’s online high school program knew things were about to change.

“When we knew that the pandemic was coming, and we knew that schools were potentially going to shut down, we did a couple of things pretty quickly,” said Bradley Mitchell, the director of the office of virtual education at VirtualSC.

That included introducing new courses and readying for a surge in enrollment. The program, which started with 10,693 students when it was introduced in 2008-09, reached 57,896 during the last academic year — with an increase of more than 11,000 students from 2019-20. 

And when compared to the state’s pass rates, those online students excelled last year in more classes.

“That’s not usually something most people expect,” Mitchell said.

Those scores vary by topic. When it comes to core classes, those online students passed tests at a higher rate than the state average in three of the four offered courses, according to VirtualSC’s 2020-21 annual report to the South Carolina Department of Education. For Advanced Placement classes, which students receive college credit for if they reach certain scores, the VirtualSC passed the exams at higher rates than the state average in five of nine courses offered. 

VirtualSC is a free, state-run virtual, supplemental high school program. It’s available for students in grades seven through 12 who are in public, private and home schools. The program has 46 full-time teachers, along with 161 part-time teachers and language coaches. 

VirtualSC is not the same as individual school-run programs created during the pandemic. 

VirtualSC test scores are typically on pace with the state averages, according to Mitchell.

Overall, 67.8% of VirtualSC students passed exams for core classes offered last year compared with the state average of 65.1%. The only exception was Biology I, where 44.6% of VirtualSC students passed, compared with the state rate of 57.3%.

“What we’ve heard a lot is science is really difficult, especially a biology course,” Mitchell said, noting that some of those students aren’t as prepared as they need to be when they start the class. 

Overall, 50.7% of VirtualSC students passed their AP exams, which more than half of students nationwide fail. The state average is higher, with 56.7% of overall students passing. However, online students passed more classes at higher rates than the state average.

The exception is Calculus AB, where only 13% of the virtual students passed, compared with 56.4% of students statewide.

VirtualSC is not designed to be a full-time school. High school counselors around the state are familiar with the program, which is used to help students with a few courses, including if their schedules might conflict and they need a specific class to graduate. 

The classes meet the same state standards as in-person courses.

“We often hear students say that online learning is easier, and that it’s not as rigorous as learning in a traditional classroom, but we’ve seen over the years that that’s not the case,” Mitchell said. 

Not every student is a good online learner, he said. Students have to be self-motivated to get through the material, which is why VirtualSC offers a grace period during which a class can be dropped without a penalty.

The most common reasons for dropping a class included students stating that they were overextended, that the course was harder than they expected or that online classes didn’t fit their learning styles, according to the annual report. 

When the pandemic hit, VirtualSC added government and economics classes to provide that option for seniors who needed them to graduate. 

“Even though the numbers were small, it made a big impact,” Mitchell said.

The program also realized that while it had strong high school options, it didn’t have classes for younger grades. After forming a committee, it piloted a middle school program. 

Those courses started in January 2021, and offer “exploratory” courses like journalism and computer science to prepare students for high school. 

The middle-school program is still developing, and some counselors are still unaware that it exists, according to Mitchell.