In 2015, when TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School (TECCA) started up, the nearly fully online school had a total of 220 enrollees.
Since then, TECCA has grown its student body more than twelvefold. Between the 2019-2020 academic year and the current one, the academy has seen a roughly 400-enrollee increase, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike so many brick-and-mortar schools across the state, when the COVID-19 public health crisis started to make its way across the United States in March, TECCA had a seamless transition to the so-called “new normal” of remote instruction.
By and large, TECCA already had the resources, technology and online learning structure in place that was needed to cope with the outbreak, according to the academy’s superintendent, Patrick Lattuca.
The main reason being, TECCA was nearly completely remote to begin with. Its mission since 2015 has been to give students throughout Massachusetts a free, flexible and uninterrupted online learning experience.
“We fit a need that’s always kind of been there,” Lattuca told MassLive. “By all means, the pandemic has definitely impacted us, because I’ll hear it from parents, I’ll hear it from students, where they want a stable learning experience. They want their students to be going to school on a regular basis. They want the students to interact virtually with other students.”
The K-12 institution attracts a wide array of students who are seeking either synchronous or asynchronous instruction, meaning the school provides both live and offline learning between coaches and students.
The kids who attend TECCA range from athletes in Olympic development programs to student actors who are on Broadway, children with severe social or emotional anxieties, medically fragile students, kids who want the flexibility to pursue entrepreneurship opportunities and teenagers who have to work to support their families.
Along with hosting hundreds of enrollees whose backgrounds and passions vary greatly, TECCA’s student body is geographically diverse as well.
In the 2019-2020 academy year, roughly 1,464 enrollees were from the eastern part of the state, while early 450 of the academy’s students were in Worcester County and 400 in Western Massachusetts.
“We cover the whole state,” Lattuca said. “We have students from way far Western Massachusetts, like the Pittsfield area, the Cape and Islands, north and south, so that’s just a little about TECCA and who we are.”
In August, TECCA was approved to increase the cap on its student body from 2,300 enrollees to 2,700. However, even before the pandemic swept through the U.S., the school had hit its cap of 2,300 students in January, and they were still seeing a sharply increasing waitlist.
“That was before COVID-19 really kind of hit the states,” Lattuca said about the uptick in demand seen in the winter. “Our enrollment has always been going up on average from I would say 200 to 400 students a year. When we opened, we were 400 students, and then the next year we were 1,000, and the next year, we were at 1,700, and it just keeps going up.”
The academy continues to see “quite a demand” multiple weeks after students started class in early and mid September, Lattuca said.
According to the superintendant, the academy has hundreds, if not thousands, of children on the waitlist for TECCA’s elementary and middle schools.
“I’m not sure to what degree the pandemic has playing in it. Obviously, it’s playing a significant degree, because interest has exploded,” Lattuca said. “But there’s always been an interest in this option for students, because we offer an extremely flexible environment.”
TECCA is no longer sending out offers of enrollment. However, Lattuca noted, he and other staff at the academy are helping parents, other school districts and even the state in other ways.
The school has been providing assistance since March, the superintendent noted, and it is not stopping any time soon.
Whether that help means providing guidance to parents who are being thrust into the world of remote schooling or offering the academy’s virtual learning software to districts, Lattuca wants people to know that TECCA is available to help.
“I just want everyone across the commonwealth to know that we’re here to help, from a district perspective, from a parent perspective, from a student perspective,” he said. “What ever anyone needs, we’re here to help and support people.”
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How TECCA’s helping the state and other districts
TECCA is not just helping parents and students, though. It is also assisting other school districts and the state government in their efforts to engage and effectively teach K-12.
Lattuca was collaborating with districts in the wake of the educational programming changes in April, giving officials advice as they suddenly found themselves making their classrooms virtual, and the superintendent has not let up on his assistance since then.
The academy has partnered with 28 Massachusetts districts across the state, offering them the opportunity to use TECCA’s software and take courses through the academy with the school’s partnership with the online education company Pearson.
Instructors from TECCA are teaching students from different districts “core single courses,” as Lattuca called it, which include math, sciences, social students and English language arts. Teachers are instructing core bundle courses that combine the four different subjects as well.
Staff from TECCA continue to meet with officials from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and have met with the agency several times over the course of the pandemic, helping them set up virtual learning options and working with them to answer frequently asked questions about online instruction.
“I look at this as a community, and when I say community, I’m talking about Massachusetts, just all of us, working together to support student learning,” Lattuca said.
Along with helping answer questions that have come DESE’s way, TECCA has also helped the state government by employing teachers who have been laid off or furloughed from their school districts due to the pandemic.
“It’s really a win-win, because we’re educating kids. We’re helping to reemploy people, and students are receiving this seamless uninterrupted educational experience,” Lattuca said. “What we’re really trying to do – it’s quite simple – is support any and every student, family or district in Massachusetts, help them educate children. It’s really that simple when you boil it down.”
How TECCA is helping parents and guardians as well as students
With the shift to online learning during the pandemic, economic disparities have been pushed to the forefront.
Many Massachusetts school districts that have moved to fully online learning or a hybrid model of in-person and remote instruction have had to work quickly to provide under-resourced families the technology and materials necessary for virtual education.
Boston Public Schools, which started the first day of classes Monday, was still tracking down students in need of laptops upon opening for the 2020-2021 academic year earlier this week.
Since the city closed its public schools in March due to the pandemic, municipal officials have handed out more than 32,500 Chromebooks and provided roughly 2,600 free WiFi hotspots to families who need them, according to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s office.
TECCA has similarly worked to help students and families in need, providing them the infrastructure needed to join the academy, according to Lattuca.
“A student that comes to TECCA or a family that joins our community, there is no barrier to education,” the superintendent said. “If a student or a family needs a computer, we provide it free of charge. It’s as simple as that.”
Online support systems are also available for families at TECCA. The school has a “support system central” that contains “a wealth of resources” as well as a section of its website geared to helping parents, guardians and students better understand the virtual learning platform, Lattuca said.
“We offer tons of support in terms of helping people get acclimated to this school,” he said. “My point is, if people have any anxiety or concern about learning how to attend at TECCA, we are more than happy to support that.”
In terms of helping students get acclimated to TECCA’s alternative learning model and assisting children who have become distressed by the pandemic, counselors are in place at the academy to provide emotional support services.
Kaitlyn Luz, who has worked as a school counselor at the virtual academy for three years, told MassLive that the lives of TECCA’s students have not changed as much in school but out of school due to the coronavirus public health crisis.
She has counseled a student whose grandparents were in the hospital because of COVID-19 as well as children who already have anxieties that were heightened because of the public health crisis.
The school counselor pointed out that she hopes students find it comforting knowing they have a safe place at TECCA and do not have to go into a physical classroom to receive an effective education.
“Online school can be intimidating because there’s a lot to learn, but I want them to know I’m there for them,” she said.