How virtual schools built to outlast COVID give districts a competitive edge

'Our goal is not to stop doing this because COVID goes away,' one administrator says of K-12 distance learning
By: | November 4, 2021
Endeavor High School in Kennewick, Washington, allows students to fully enroll online or blend online and in-person instruction.Endeavor High School in Kennewick, Washington, allows students to fully enroll online or blend online and in-person instruction.

The COVID experience convinced Kennewick School District in Eastern Washington to open an alternative high school-based online program for all students in the system.

Endeavor High School allows students to fully enroll online or blend online and in-person instruction. The equivalent of about 155 full-time students are enrolled, Superintendent Traci Pierce says.

The district is now providing options to families wary of COVID’s ongoing disruptions and working to prevent students from leaving for other schools or districts that may have more flexible learning alternatives, Pierce says.

Kennewick also added an online component to a K-8 program that allows homeschool families to access district instruction. Homeschool students may take math and English at home but enroll in district P.E. and art courses, she says.

“It helps break the mold of it’s got to be one-size-fits-all for every student and family,” Pierce says. “The last year and a half has really pushed the thinking of districts all across the country.”

Endeavor allows students to move at an accelerated pace because they progress is not measured by seat time. The flexibility accommodates parents who can only help students after work and on weekends, says Matt Scott, Kennewick’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, assessment and professional development.

Currently, some students have chosen online mainly because of fears of COVID exposure, unwillingness to wear a mask, or other pandemic-related issues. “What we’ll expect moving forward is more and more choice based on what a student needs, not what a student is going to be exposed to,” Scott says. “More students will engage because it’s what works best for their individual learning.”

Counselors, principals and other educators at individual schools are expected to be candid with families about the expectations for online learning and that students need the ability the work independently, among other skills, to be successful, Pierce adds. “We’ve had some families, once they’ve been in online learning for a few weeks, realize it isn’t a good fit,” she says. “So, we’ve needed to be flexible and adaptable to let families return to their neighborhood school.”

Hoping to build and grow online

In the same region, the Pasco School District launched the PIXel e-learning academy this fall to provide synchronous online learning for students in K-8.

The state of Washington required schools to have an online option this year, and Pasco Assistant Superintendent Mira Gobel says PIXel is a COVID-era innovation that will be an option for students well into the future.

The approximately 350 students in the academy spend 70-80% of their time participating in live, online learning with a Pasco schools teacher who is also at home and uses the district’s curriculum.

The rest of the time is devoted to independent work, teacher office hours and other asynchronous activities. The district’s vision is for virtual learning to mirror in-person learning as closely as possible, including the amount of time remote students have to interact with teachers, Gobel says.

The district has developed PIXel so the academy can also accommodate students with IEPs and its dual-language program. Administrators are now working to add “specials” such as art and music.

“Our goal is not to stop doing this because COVID goes away—this is something we’re hoping to build on and grow as a viable learning option for our students, families and teachers,” she says. “We have some teachers who are thriving virtually—they love it.”


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