How 2 virtual academies gained momentum from COVID

'Online school is not easier and it's not less work,' principal says of his virtual academy
By: | March 4, 2021
Districts launching virtual academies post-COVID are providing both synchronous and asynchronous online learning. (AdobeStock/Chinara)Districts launching virtual academies post-COVID are providing both synchronous and asynchronous online learning. (AdobeStock/Chinara)

The pandemic has not had many blessings, Superintendent Paul Gausman says, but it did provide momentum for launching a virtual academy in Sioux City Community Schools.

The response to the pandemic’s disruptions allowed the district to secure the ed-tech, bulk up on bandwidth and develop an instructional model for an online school that will outlast COVID, Gausman says.

And as Iowa is a school choice state, the move is also competitive as the district works to prevent any of its 15,000 students from switching to another virtual education provider.

“I’ve always believed public schools need to be the best choice, so we’ve got to give options to the community,” Gausman says.

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A selling point for Sioux City’s virtual academy will be its blend of synchronous and asynchronous online learning for all grade levels.

“Our program is directly taught by our own teaching staff, with the same standards, same curriculum and pacing,” he says.

Along with the online advancements, Sioux City has offered in-person throughout the 2020-21 school year. About 20% of its students remain online, Gausman says.

“The virtual setting can be a positive educational environment for cert students,” he says. “I certainly wouldn’t want to do for all students, all the time.”

The district has also been providing guidance to parents on the appropriate amount of supervision to give their remote students. While parent involvement is critical, there’s also the risk of parents helping too much and completing assignments for their children.

The plan is for the virtual academy to be housed in its own facility, compared to the current remote learning methods of online students remaining part of their neighborhood schools, Gausman says.

‘Online school is not easier’

Administrators in Longview Public Schools in Washington had been kicking around the idea of a virtual academy for a few years, perhaps as a new option at its alternative high school.

Like in Sioux City, COVID convinced the district to make the online high school a reality for the 2020-21 school year, says Mike Kleiner, principal of Longview Virtual Academy.

“We have a number of kids who need the flexibility of online school in order to hold down jobs,” Kleiner says. “They’re helping their families pay rent and pay the bills.”

The online high school has also been popular with students who suffer anxiety in school settings as well as for students on individual education plans who prefer to work at home in a controlled environment, he says.

Longview’s offerings will be mostly asynchronous, though students will come into the alternative school building once a week for advisory, enrichment or intervention with teachers.

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When students enroll, they are asked to consider whether virtual learning is a good fit for them. District educators also provide tips on how to structure their learning day.

Still, some students who struggled in-person are now thriving online.

“Online school is not easier and it’s not less work,” Kleiner says. “There are some disappointed kids who think they’re going to jump into this and video-gram their way through.”

Kleiner, however, cautions other administrators that online is in no way easier for educators to operate than in-person learning.

“It can can take more time than coming into a building every day,” he says. “It’s a lot more labor than you think—this is not an easy way out of spending on full-time employees.”

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