Some parents are looking for a permanent virtual school for the fall

By Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN Business

Many parents and children have struggled to learn from a distance throughout the pandemic. Samantha Lucero had a very different experience with one of her children.

“When the pandemic first hit, online school was a little messy for everyone,” Lucero, a stay-at-home mom from Colorado Springs, told CNN Business. “But my oldest daughter did so well. She started to participate more with teachers and became more comfortable than when she was in school. His grades were incredible.

Her daughter, 13, has the autism spectrum and suffers from a sensory processing disorder, conditions that often make it more difficult for children to communicate, socialize and adapt to environmental changes, such as annoying noises. in the classroom. When the Colorado Springs School District announced plans earlier this year To launch a permanent online school option, called Spark Online Academy, starting in August, Lucero spoke to his daughter about taking this alternative route and then signed her up. “She was very excited,” Lucero said.

After more than a year of the pandemic, the frustrations and drawbacks of online learning are well known to countless households. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 25% of parents whose children received virtual or combined education reported deterioration in their children’s mental or emotional health, compared with 16% of parents whose children received face-to-face instruction. They were also more likely to say their children were less physically active, spent less time outdoors, and spent less time with their friends. In addition, virtual instruction contributed to the emotional distress of parents.

But as many school districts are forgoing virtual learning options and bringing students back to class this fall, following recent CDC guidelines to make it a priority, some parents like Lucero are looking for distance-only options in new and existing schools. .

The decision to withdraw students from traditional classrooms to digital classrooms varies among families, with factors ranging from flexibility and continued concerns about Covid-19 to better support children with different learning needs which flourished during home learning. At the same time, continue Distance learning is a privilege that typically requires one or more parents to stay home or work remotely. It also requires that households have broadband and appropriate devices, although some programs lend resources such as a tablet or computer to students.

For families interested in online school, the options seem to be growing and growing in popularity. A spokesperson for another virtual public school option called Stride K12, which works with school districts in 30 states and Washington DC, said the percentage of currently enrolled families who have indicated they will return in the fall is at an all-time high. high level for several years. Last year, it added hundreds of teachers, expanded its program to serve more students, and stocked up on computers.

In the home state of Lucero, applications for online multi-district certification, i.e. virtual schools that can enroll students in Colorado counties – have gone from one or two in a typical year to six so far this yearr, according to Jeremy Meyer, director of communications for the Colorado Department of Education.

Julie Johnson, director of Spark Online Academy, said the virtual school was created because many families in the Colorado Springs school district reported similar success with online classes during the pandemic.

“We heard from parents who were frustrated with the negative story about online learning because it hadn’t been their experience,” she said. “These generalizations dismiss what has worked for so many families – and that population matters.”

The virtual classroom lives

Spark Online Academy currently has 200 students enrolled in Kindergarten to Grade 8 and is “growing like crazy,” according to Johnson, who said the school is open to students from all over Colorado.

Registration is limited to 25 students per grade level and one teacher. “A common misconception about online learning is that you can bring a whole bunch of kids into a virtual classroom, but that’s not good for anyone,” she said.

While some instructions will be done in front of a screen, the school will also provide practical materials for projects or independent practice. Classes can meet periodically in person for optional activities, such as organized sports, cooking classes, or a trip to the nearby mountain of Pikes Peak.. It will also set up studios where students can meet teachers in person or carry out science projects, participate in robotics or have a quiet place to learn outside of the home.

They are learning the lessons of a year and more of virtual learning during the pandemic. “The teachers I saw experiencing the highest levels of stress and exhaustion were trying to replicate a traditional model in a virtual environment,” she said.

“We think of it as a school without walls,” Johnson added. “We didn’t want to buy canned school products where children parade through modules. We learned last year that it is essential to start by building relationships with students focusing on this social and emotional aspect to ensure that children feel connected and belong to a community.

Bill Kottenstette, office director of Colorado’s School of Choice, the state education department that provides information on public school choice options, said the pandemic has prompted schools and districts to expand their ability to learn online and prompted some to “create formal online schools to move forward.” . “

“As students and parents become more familiar with virtual learning and how students can be successful in a virtual environment – and as the ‘system’ improves to provide learning options more effective virtual – there will be more students in physical environments. choose a virtual option, ”he said.

Not for everybody

Some parents who chose to enroll their children in pre-existing e-learning services during the pandemic, such as The Connections Academy, have decided to keep them there. The Connections Academy, which has been in existence for 20 years, works with 40 public schools in more than 29 states, providing students with the curriculum, technical support, and qualified teachers. Students take classes online with their peers in their school districts, but can also attend in-person activities, ranging from launch parties, field trips and clubs to prom and graduation ceremonies.

Tracy Colmenero, who lives in rural Texas, enrolled her two sons in Connections Academy’s gifted program for the 2020-2021 school year when their local school struggled to get started with virtual learning. This allowed his 11-year-old son Zachary to develop a passion for acting. “I’m not sure how we could have done all the auditions and filmed at the same time as a school in person,” Colmenero said, noting that he was able to take lessons in the car or listen to tapes later in the car. daytime. .

Her other son, Anthony, 9, overcame his fear of speaking in public by showing up to his class behind a computer more often and improving his typing skills and testing without the stress of the classroom. “We have decided to continue with the school this fall, especially with all the activities they do,” Colmenero said. “If they want to go back to the local school, they can, but they are very happy with it so far. “

Meanwhile, according to Johnson, around 20% of parents who have enrolled their children in Spark Online Academy said they “are not yet ready to bring their children back due to lingering concerns about the virus.”

Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, worries that some parents “ignore what their child really needs out of fear” of future variations. But she also echoes parents and online educators who say what works for one child may not work for another.

“I think the majority of kids are likely to benefit from in-person learning, but there are definitely kids who thrive at home and do best in a remote environment,” Chaudhary said. “It shows that public health recommendations are never really consistent; they’re supposed to be for the majority, but that doesn’t mean it will suit all kids.

In Lucero’s case, there isn’t even a one-size-fits-all approach for his two children. While her eldest daughter will take virtual classes this fall, her 11-year-old daughter – who struggled with the lack of social interaction during the pandemic – will resume classes at her local traditional school.

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Perry A. Thomasson