14 Sep Covid’s Broader Reach: Virtual Classrooms Let Students Thrive
Just about the time we thought we could put this pandemic behind us, we find ourselves masking up against the Delta variant, and there are other versions waiting in the wings. The reality is that Covid’s impact—both the good and the bad—will be with us for a long time.
We’re now seeing the broader sociological implications of Covid
When educators cobbled together online learning in the early days of Covid, it may have been a bit haphazard. That improved virtual learning model is now in demand for kids who are self-directed and learn quickly, for those with medical conditions or those who are being bullied.
A good example is Rory Levin, a Minnesota sixth grader who used to hate going to school. He has a health condition that makes him self-conscious around other students who often taunt him. When his district created a standalone, digital-only program for the pandemic, Rory couldn’t wait to sign up. For the first time, he’s loving going to school. He enjoys the live video classes and is making friends with other online students. His mother is seeing a new self-confidence that she attributes to his excelling in his schoolwork.
Online classes: A perfect fit for kids who may have trouble fitting in
In December, the school system decided to keep running the online school even after the pandemic subsides. Ms. Levin plans to re-enroll Rory again in the fall. “It is such a good fit for him. We’re really hoping they can continue it for the rest of his school career.”
Remote programs are poised to outlast the pandemic
A year after the Covid disrupted public education, many remote programs are being positioned to outlast the pandemic. As students return to classrooms, many school systems are rushing to accommodate those students who prefer online classes. But these virtual classes are different from the ones that were hastily initiated in the early days of the pandemic. Dedicated teachers work only with remote students and use curriculums designed for online learning.
Demand for virtual schools has soared
- Atlanta, one of the nation’s largest school systems, plans to enroll about 1,000 students in its newonline school this fall.
- The Anchorage School District expects about 2,000 children to attend its year-old online school beginning in August.
- In Minnesota, the number of state-approved online schools is on track to double this year to 80 or more, from 37 before the pandemic.
Online learning: Lets kids focus on learning
For Rory Levin and many other students, online learning is the ideal environment. For students who don’t fit in, those who are being bullied—online classes take the pressure off school so that kids can focus on learning. In a study by the RAND Corporation, “Remote Learning Is Here to Stay,” 58 out of 288 district administrators — roughly 20 percent — said their school system had already started an online school, was planning to start one or was considering doing so as a post-pandemic offering.
“This is hardly a panacea or a silver bullet for public schooling,” said Heather Schwartz, a senior policy researcher at RAND who directed the study. But, she added, “there is a minority of parents, a minority of students and even a minority of teachers for whom virtual schooling is the preferred mode.”
Online schools comes with risks
- Virtual schooling could normalize remote learning approaches that have had poor results for many students. It could also further divide a fragile national education system, especially when many Asian, Black and Latino families have beenwary of sending their children back to school this year. “My fear is that it will lead to further fracturing and fragmentation,” said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
- Districts said they were simply responding to demand from parents and children who want to stick with remote learning for a range of reasons–health issues, bullying, discrimination or just the convenience of learning at home.
- Districts that fail to start online schools could lose students and funding. To pay for the new online offerings, some districts said, they are using federal coronavirus relief funds or shifting resources from other programs.
Optimal remote learning: When parents involved as learning coaches
Multiple studies have reported that children in full-time online schools, particularly cyber charter schools, have poorer educational results than their peers in traditional public schools. “If our traditional public schools start teaching this way, it’s going to be disastrous,” said Gary Miron, a professor of education evaluation and research at Western Michigan University, who has studied virtual schools.
The self-directed approach works best with self-motivated students whose parents are available to act as learning coaches. But it has not worked well for those who need more live, face-to-face teacher guidance and/or help from parents.
Virtual programs at work:
- Keri Rodrigues, a Somerville, Mass, parent, enrolled her third-grade son Miles in the program in December. Miles had grown bored and felt ignored during his local school’s live video classes. She thought he might be happier taking courses through the virtual school, where he could direct his own learning and she could check on his progress. “He had a beautiful experience. One day he was down the rabbit hole in social studies, and he could spend all day doing those lessons — then the next day he could take on math.”
- Some districts are providing social opportunities for children in online schools. Students in theAnchorage School District’s virtual program may participate in athletics, clubs and other in-person activities through their neighborhood schools.
- Districts establishing online schools face a learning curve. Last summer, Huntsville City Schools in Alabama began marketing their new Huntsville Virtual Academy as an option for children to learn from anywhere at their own pace. Parents asked for more structure, so this semester the school introduced a teacher-directed model requiring students to log in for group video classes and turn on their cameras. Nearly 6,900 of the district’s students — about 30 percent — are enrolled.
- In another Arkansas district, students must apply for acceptance to their online program. They must meet certain criteria, have good attendance records and strong parental support.
- In Minnesota: They’re processing about 50 applications for new virtual schools, compared with two or three a year before the coronavirus.
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