Virtual reality charter school shows off technology at digital launch event
Virtual renderings of Erika Donalds and Adam Mangana.

Optima
Optima Classical Academy is based in Collier County.

America’s first virtual reality charter school will start classes on Aug. 22.

Erika Donalds, founder of Optima Classical Academy, said students can begin enrolling in a lottery to get a digital seat in the classroom at the high-tech endeavor.

At a virtual press conference, Donalds — through a 3-D rendered avatar — said this type of virtual instruction will be unlike anything students have experienced, whether during the pandemic or before it.

“Parents have been upset at substandard virtual offerings made available during the pandemic,” Donalds said.

“This is the gold standard,” she added.

The school launch was announced last month but the virtual press conference on Thursday marked the first time school officials could showcase the virtual capabilities.

Adam Mangana, executive director of Optima Domi, said part of the reason this endeavor can move forward right now is the reduced cost of virtual reality technology. Headsets will be provided to students at no charge to the family, so long as they are satisfied with the $300 Oculus technology.

“That’s the equivalent of buying every student a Google Chromebook,” he said. The same technology a few years ago might have cost thousands of dollars per headset.

The school will initially offer classes to students in the third through eighth grade, but additional grades will be added each year. Donalds said eighth-graders enrolled this fall will be able to stay at the virtual school until their graduation from high school in four years.

For now, the school holds a charter based in Collier County, and can only serve students in the state of Florida. And students eligible for public school in the state can put their name in the lottery. The school plans to cap enrollment at 35, higher than Florida’s class-size restrictions in public schools but much lower than Florida virtual schools, where teachers can sometimes see 100 students assigned.

In the future, Donalds hopes to expand nationwide or even globally. The virtual reality technology already allows the school to tap education talent anywhere to offer instruction.

“We can access talent all over the world,” she said. “We would like our students to be able to access it from all over the world.”

She sees particular value to military families who may be stationed internationally and want a U.S. education.

The school will also include non-core academic materials like music and arts, and like any charter school students, students can become involved in sports at their zoned public schools, Donalds noted. Students can expect to spend mornings in the headsets in a virtual classroom environment, but then turn to individual study in the afternoon like in online virtual schools. Donalds said she wants to make sure extracurricular offerings exist to provide a full school experience to students.

The new education platform could shape policy around education as well. Donalds, of note, is well-connected politically, and is married to U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds. In Florida, she also founded the School Choice Movement and previously served on the Collier County School Board.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected]



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