How schools can give online learning a better name post-COVID

By highlighting the skills that are best suited to virtual instruction, it can become as engaging to students as in-person learning.
By: | December 22, 2021

Virtual learning and virtual academies have a negative connotation for some educators and families after the turbulent shifts back and forth online during the last three school years.

That could provide a public relations challenge for district leaders who are now trying to develop or enhance more robust and permanent online learning options for their students and families, says Bob Dillon, a consultant, former school technology director and co-founder of nonprofit PD provider ConnectED Learning. “We did the worst of virtual learning,” Dillon says. “We threw devices at kids. Some had internet access, some didn’t. We didn’t do instruction well, and people said, ‘This isn’t very good.’ Now we want to do virtual learning correctly, and that term is tarnished.”

So, administrators now have to convince students and their families that this next phase of virtual learning is not the same as what occurred earlier in the pandemic. One approach is to focus on the choice virtual learning allows—for example, it lets students take classes offered by schools in other cities, states or countries.

Educators can also make the case that virtual learning in K-12 will prepare students for the instruction they will likely encounter in college and the workforce, Dillon said. “The most effective way to recalibrate is to have students who are involved with high-quality virtual learning speak about the power of it,” Dillon says.

Districts can also differentiate between skills—such as grammar, math or reading comprehension—that are well suited to virtual instruction and blend in in-person experiences such as outdoor field trips and group problem-solving projects. They will also need to figure out how to teach physical fitness in the remote environment and ensure students can connect with more than just one teacher. “Kids often need to connect with more adults, ” he says. “So, how are you making sure it’s not just one teacher interacting with a group of kids, that counselors and principals and special ed teachers are really  wrapped around those kids who are learning from afar?”

‘Totally engaged’

When Tucson USD in Arizona launched its K-12 virtual academy this fall, administrators expected 800 students to enroll. But more than 2,400 signed up, says Sylvia Quigley, a district education technology integration specialist. The Tucson Unified Virtual Academy, or TUVA, was designed for students uncomfortable returning to in-person instruction for a variety of reasons—some did not want to wear masks while others remained worried about COVID infections despite a district mask mandate.

To make the experience user-friendly, students access all programs and applications with a single sign-on into the learning management system. Classes take place on a schedule that’s similar to the in-person experience and teachers hold office hours to provide students with extra help.

When Tucson USD in Arizona launched its K-12 virtual academy this fall, administrators expected 800 students to enroll. But more than 2,400 signed up.

When Tucson USD in Arizona launched its K-12 virtual academy this fall, administrators expected 800 students to enroll. But more than 2,400 signed up.

The district has hired tech liaisons to help train teachers and communicate their needs to administrators. It is already seeing evidence that even the youngest students in virtual learning are getting a jump start on learning computer skills—such as creating PDFs and clearing cache—that will continue to serve them well in higher grades, college and the workforce. “Some kids absolutely thrive in this virtual environment far greater than they do in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting,” Quigley says. “They come out of their shell. Teachers said, ‘I couldn’t get these kids to answer anything and now they’re totally engaged.'”

The district is now determining what alternatives students might have to spend a year, multiple years or their entire K-12 careers in virtual learning, Quigley says. “I do not see this ever going away,” she predicts. “The need is there and we need to meet the changing needs of the families we serve.”

‘More than the COVID school’

Students in schools overseen by the Natchitoches Parish School Board in Louisiana must now complete a rigorous application process to get into the system’s virtual program, Superintendent Grant Eloi says. While students impacted by COVID can join the program, the focus this year is more on tailoring virtual instruction to students who need acceleration or intervention. Students can enroll full-time or take a single advanced course not offered by the district.

Natchitoches educators have also seen success with moving students who have been suspended or expelled to remote learning temporarily. These kids tend to be able to return to regular instruction more quickly with the supervision that’s provided virtually, Eloi says.

After the COVID experience, the district also realized their virtual school needed its own principal and that teachers dedicated solely to the program would conduct regular one-on-one check-ins with their students.

Right now, the program serves about 150 6th- through 12th-graders, and Eloi hopes it will grow by about 15-to-25 students a year. The changes have allowed the virtual experience to go much more smoothly than it did earlier in the pandemic. Districts are now awaiting test scores to see how virtual students are progressing academically. “Compared to where we were last year, I haven’t fielded one complaint,” Eloi says. “All the kids are where they need to be.”

Parents of students in the Fairfield County School District K-12 virtual school most appreciate the flexibility the program offers, says Brandon L. Dixon, the South Carolina system’s director of alternative and innovative programs. Parents of high school students, in particular, say virtual learning gives them more time and the ability to help their students with assignments. To help younger students in the program, the district offers training to parents on how to use tools such as Google Classroom.

Like Natchitoches, Fairfield County instituted an application process in efforts to ensure students would be likely to succeed in virtual instruction. “We reviewed report cards, we reviewed high school transcripts, we took a look at attendance and we got feedback from principals,” Dixon says. “We didn’t want to set any students up for failure.”

Families also had to show they had reliable internet access at home even as the district is winding down the distribution of Wi-Fi hotspots, except in emergency situations. The district also tells parents that students must be the ones maneuvering the devices and navigating the virtual program.

“This is more than the COVID school,” Dixon says. “We definitely envision our program lasting well beyond the pandemic.”

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