COLUMBIA, S.C. — Several high school graduations are being celebrated across the Midlands, including for virtual students. Some graduates say switching to online school during the pandemic helped them get their diplomas.
Lowcountry Connections Academy held an in-person graduation ceremony for its 37 seniors on June 3rd. It's a statewide free virtual school that opened in 2021.
Graduate Ariana Watts told News19 she was, "just happy to be out there and be a graduate, I’m just ecstatic about it.” Watts switched from her traditional West Columbia high school to the public virtual program last year.
Watts explained that she made the change due to the pandemic. "My little sister got sick a lot so we wanted to protect her.”
She added that making the sacrifice to keep her family safe was tough at first, but now that hard work has paid off. “Now that I’m over this finish line I feel like so many doors are open for me,” Watts said with a smile.
School leader GeRita Connor explained to News19 that their original school, the South Carolina Connections Academy, saw a surge in enrollment during the pandemic and has over 6,000 students. So, they opened Lowcountry Connections as a second option, which now has about 400 students.
“Although things have settled a little bit, there’s still a need for those that are medically fragile, we have students that are medically fragile, we have students whose family members are medically fragile and they want a safe option,” said Connor.
The school expects the number of students to double next year, as Connor said parents are not only concerned about COVID-19 safety, but the increase in violence too.
“School districts always make plans to protect students and keep them safe while they're in our care, of course, but some of those things are just not things you can control, so it’s good to be able to offer an option for parents who just want more time to figure out what the best thing would be for their child," Connor shared.
Virtual school can be a temporary or permanent option for families, and for students like Watts, it gave her the tools she needed to succeed. Watts will be studying psychology at Midlands Tech this fall.
Lowcountry Connections is one of seven virtual schools in South Carolina and teaches grades K-12.