Detroit has launched its own virtual school. How are you
Virtual learning has been a part of student life since the pandemic began in 2020. So when the District of Detroit chose to open its own virtual school this year, Victoria Haynesworth decided it was a no-brainer to enroll his son.
“My son’s safety…that was the driving force for me,” she said of her 14-year-old. “It had everything to do with the pandemic from A to Z. I knew I needed more than the person.”
Prior to this school year, school officials were banking on the virtual option becoming a permanent fixture for students thriving in the online space. The district also hoped the virtual school would address families’ health and safety concerns.
But as the school year progresses, even though the Detroit Public Schools Community District has pledged to improve the program, families are finding that enrollment in the district’s virtual school has not always been easy.
Developing the virtual school has been a goal for Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who plans to spend $5.1 million in federal COVID relief funds to hire more staff. This would address parent concerns throughout the school year that virtual classrooms are too full and some classes are not staffed too many days. Other parents complained that the program did not provide enough services for their children with special educational needs.
More recently, Vitti said the district is considering limiting enrollment to grades 4 through 12 in the 2022-23 school year as school officials question whether the virtual school is the right space for early literacy from pre-kindergarten to grade three.
Taking into account the varied needs of virtual school families
Aliya Moore enrolled her 11-year-old daughter in the district’s virtual program due to safety concerns. Moore said her daughter hasn’t had a social studies teacher or consistent substitute since late October. In her math class, her instructor left for the last weeks of the semester to care for her mother who contracted COVID.
“The rest of her classes, she doesn’t really have a solid choice. His schedule talks about art, but there was no art,” she added.
Bree Dusseault, an analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said there’s been a trend this fall among large school districts that have created permanent remote learning options as a “function of responding to demands from parents and of trying to pick up enrollment… not necessarily as a longer term vision of what a good distance learning environment for kids might look like.
“We know there are examples of high quality remote learning, but a good remote learning environment needs to be done with intention and based on research, and what we’ve learned around best practices” , she said.
Michael Barbour, a professor at Touro University in California who studies virtual education, said districts could better improve their remote options by developing multiple learning models that can meet the different needs of students enrolled in virtual learning. .
“You can easily set up a program where at least you have two options where you could have students learning 100% at home or you could have students learning 100% online, but do it in a classroom where there’s a facilitator or a teacher. it’s there to help them… sort of work their way through some of the content,” Barbour said.
After an increase in interest from families in the weeks leading up to the start of the school year, the Detroit school district sought to hire more teachers and staff for the virtual school. Fall enrollment started at 1,900 students, but spiked to 2,100 students in the spring semester.
An estimated 260 students have opted out of the district-required weekly COVID testing, which means they will be transferred to virtual school. One hundred and thirty opposing K-5 students moved to the virtual school the week of February 28, with high school students due to move by the end of this week.
Haynesworth spoke to his fair share of parents who were hesitant to enroll their children in virtual school in the fall and before second semester.
“I think a lot of them really think about safety and want to know that whatever needs to be implemented will be done through virtual school,” she said.
“It’s not perfect… but it’s effective”
The DPSCD virtual school wasn’t the first school of choice for Francheska Gonzalez’s son Luis, but she says he learned to adapt to the remote environment after choosing not to send him to a classroom because he has asthma problems.
“Participating remotely requires more discipline; however, I think my son is better supported in that environment,” Gonzalez said. “It made him more independent, organized and disciplined. It’s not perfect and flawless, but it’s effective.
But some parents differ. Marquita Andrews’ son, who is dyslexic and has learning adaptations, has struggled with the district’s virtual school over the past semester.
In an in-person classroom, Andrews said her son would be in a resource room all day and receive audio-visual lessons to help him read, as well as timely reminders from a resource to take his necessary medications. Most virtual school days, he is not reminded to take his medication. Some days he gets frustrated and disconnects. Recently, he told his mother that he preferred to study for a high school equivalency exam.
“He was excited when the school year started, but at this point he’s over it,” Andrews said. “He said to me, ‘I’m sick of asking for help and I’m not getting it.
Vitti said the district has tried to be clear that it can only accommodate students with learning disabilities who have IEPs that were screened before virtual school enrollment.
“Some of the educational, behavioral and physical needs of some students cannot be met in a virtual learning environment,” he said.
School districts across the country have faced the challenge of providing comprehensive student services with Individual Education Plans, called IEPs, that require complex accommodations.
“I think remote schools can start to get into a gray area in terms of how much service they can provide,” Dussealt said, adding that districts could theoretically allow remote students who need accommodation in person to access services in a central location.
The way forward for virtual schools
Joe Friedhoff, vice president of online learning at nonprofit Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, says the challenges school districts have faced so far with virtual learning aren’t overwhelming and don’t define distance education as a whole.
“What the pandemic has brought about is a form of virtual learning, but it’s much more like emergency learning,” Friedhoff said. “What the kids got in school and the parents were exposed to was the best we could do with very little training and very little preparation in most cases.”
In Detroit, some parents have complained that their students don’t have access to the same classes or extracurriculars as in-person students. Vitti said the district is “exploring the possibility” of advanced courses and more electives in the future. For now, the school will focus on its core classes and supporting the education of exceptional, or ESE, students. Other resources such as after-school tutoring, he added, can be offered if teachers are ready to work after long screen days.
“Our goal was to get the school started without knowing how many students would actually enroll,” Vitti said. “As enrollment stabilizes, we will expand programming if student numbers support expansion.”
Friedhoff said there is a long way to go for school district leaders to design and implement high-quality online learning options that balance the flexibility of distance learning with the academic standards of in-person learning.
Moore’s biggest concern is the learning gaps she perceives her daughter will have at the end of this school year. The district recently offered her a seat on an advisory board, which she hopes to use to ensure more services are offered.
“I’m here for the results,” she said. “If we want to be part of that and really lay the groundwork for how this virtual framework will be permanent, I’m okay.”
Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at [email protected].
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Joe Friedhoff’s name. Joe Friedhoff is the Vice President of Michigan Virtual.