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Parents push to keep virtual school open

— Local legislators said Monday that Greenfield could operate a state-run virtual school for one year — a temporary fix that would ensure that 470 students across the state would have a cyber school to attend next fall.

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said it is unlikely that they will be able to change a virtual school law that is preventing Greenfield from operating its locally run Massachusetts Virtual Academy after June 30.

But they said Monday there is a possible temporary solution. If the Greenfield School Committee reconsidered its vote of last month and decided to start a new state-run cyber school this fall, it could choose to close that school after the 2013-2014 school year, said the legislators. And they said that the March 25 deadline imposed on Greenfield to submit a state application could be extended to allow some more time for the district to weigh its options.

Forced by law to transition its three-year-old Massachusetts Virtual Academy into a state-run school, the School Committee decided Feb. 28 to not pursue this option — a vote that means there won’t be a virtual school in Greenfield after June 30.

The School Committee’s decision set off a wave of response across the state from the students’ families — who said that their children cannot return to brick-and-mortar public schools. Families sent letters and emails and started online petitions, hoping to persuade the School Committee, legislators or state officials to find a solution.

One hope that emerged from a subcommittee meeting in Greenfield last Thursday was that there would be some way for legislators to amend the law and allow Greenfield a one-year period to slowly close its virtual innovation school.

Mark and Rosenberg met last Friday with Mayor William Martin and then separately with Superintendent Susan Hollins to discuss the district’s options going forward.

Greenfield could still submit an application and operate a state-run virtual school next fall, and then close that school after one year, said the legislators. This would give Massachusetts Virtual Academy students a place to attend school in the one-year gap until new virtual schools across the state can be created.

“Clearly, that there are 500 children that are hanging in limbo — the same children that they argued over the last three to four years that they wanted to serve and that we went to bat for them with the department so that they could serve,” said Rosenberg.

JC Considine, spokesman for the department of elementary and secondary education, acknowledged that once it was awarded a three- to five-year virtual school certificate, the School Committee could “turn in” that certificate at any point to close the school. There has been no indication that the School Committee plans to reverse its decision.

Lunt, the committee chairman, maintains it is not in the board’s authority to set up a new state-run virtual school. It was not a decision the committee took lightly, he said, but one that was forced by the law.

Committee members and school administrators have also said they had less than six weeks to submit an application to the state — a deadline that some felt would be difficult to meet.

Hollins, who said Monday she respects the committee’s decision, advised the committee at the February meeting to take more time to weigh the pros and cons.

Meanwhile, families of Massachusetts Virtual Academy students are still hoping that something can be done to keep a cyber school in Greenfield running next fall.

“There’s an assumption that the kids can go back into brick-and-mortar schools and be fine, but that’s not true,”said Rebecca Deans-Rowe, a Southborough mother.

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