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Education

'A Classroom-Like Experience': A Look At 100% Virtual Learning In Three Northern Colorado School Districts

Virtual learning mother and daughter
Nenand Stojkovic / CC BY 2.0

It’s back-to-school time for students around Colorado. Some districts, like Greeley-Evans District 6, are opening their doors for in-person learning, while others are starting the school year remote, with plans to resume in-person classes later in the year.

But some families have decided that they just don’t want to send their kids back to school in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. Districts around the state are also letting these parents opt in to a school program that is 100% virtual.

This can be confusing for parents, because virtual learning varies quite a bit between school districts. KUNC’s Rae Solomon spent some time sorting it all out and joined Colorado Edition to explain what she found.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for clarity.

Henry Zimmerman: Clear something up for me. There’s remote learning, that a lot of school districts are adopting for the start of the school year, right? And then there’s 100% virtual school… but aren’t they the same thing? What am I missing here?

Rae Solomon: In both cases we’re talking about kids doing schoolwork on a computer, from home. But they are actually completely different tracks. It’s useful to think about the 100% virtual learning option as its own separate school within each district – and some districts are treating them exactly like that, but more on that later.

Let’s say you enroll your child in a regular neighborhood school. If your district is starting out with remote learning, your child will meet with their regular teacher, who works for that school, and their classmates, in an online classroom until in-person classes begin. At that point, the entire cohort from the online classroom remains intact — same teacher, same kids — and they all start meeting in the physical classroom. The idea is for it to really be a one-to-one translation that can pivot from the physical to the online classroom as needed. It’s a little bit like how classes shifted from in-person to remote learning that families saw last year, but much, much more organized, streamlined and robust.

But, if you enroll your child in the virtual school, things start to look a little bit different. You are no longer attached to the regular neighborhood school. The online teacher is a designated online teacher, working for the virtual school, and the online classmates might come from anywhere in the district. When regular schools return to in-person learning, the virtual school students stay the course online. And most districts want you to make a real commitment — for a full semester, or even a full year — to be part of the virtual school.

So, since last spring, in a matter of months, all these new virtual schools have been created… that seems like a heavy lift. Where does the infrastructure — the curriculum, the platform — for that come from?

Well, I hate to tell you, but there’s no easy way to answer that question, because it’s just really different in each district. So, how about I just walk you through a few of the bigger districts in Northern Colorado?

Sounds good. Why don’t we start with the school district in KUNC’s own backyard — Greeley-Evans District 6. What do you know about that virtual school?

Greeley-Evans is an interesting case because it is one of the districts on the Front Range that decided to start the school year in-person. So, the choice for families is really between two starkly different learning experiences.

For students going virtual, they’ll be working with a curriculum that combines materials developed within the district, with lessons purchased from an outside vendor called “Edgenuity” – that’s a for-profit company based in Arizona that also supplies the district’s online learning platform.

But all of the teachers for this virtual school are local, district teachers, pulled from their regular assignments for the purpose.

And what can students at the Greeley-Evans virtual school expect, like on a day-to-day basis?

Apparently, a real classroom-like experience. Theresa Myers, a spokeswoman for the district said the lessons will really focus on core learning areas, like English and math, and that they are trying to make the virtual experience as much like a regular school experience as possible, estimating that classes would take up about five to six hours a day.

At the elementary school level, not all of that time will be online, and the district is calling on parents to monitor and assist their children.

Myers also said they are trying to be flexible with parents in Greeley-Evans — to give them as much grace as possible, because they know this is a difficult decision. But at the same time, families really have to commit to at least a full semester of virtual learning. She says they require the commitment just for staffing purposes. They have to pull teachers from their normal assignments to staff the virtual school, and worry about having enough teachers available if students are constantly transferring between the different modalities.

The virtual school year in Greeley-Evans District 6 started this week. Myers said about 17% of students opted into virtual learning for the semester.

Seventeen percent opting for online learning. Can you give me a little perspective? Is Greeley a bit of an outlier here? Are those numbers high, low, about average?

There is no average. This is all new territory. I’ve heard virtual opt-in rates as high as 30%, in Denver Public Schools, to as low as 10% in Poudre School District, in Fort Collins. Of course with Poudre School District, their low opt-in rate probably has something to do with some of the different commitments they’re asking families to make.

Different commitments? What do you mean?

Well, of all the areas I looked at, Poudre School District asked parents to look the furthest out into the future and commit to a full year of 100% virtual learning for their children.

That seems kind of pessimistic. Why ask parents to make that decision now, to keep their kids at home for a full year, when we don’t know what this pandemic is going to look like?

Well, the district — more than others I’ve spoken with — is really conceiving of this virtual option as starting up a new school. They have a name for it: PSD Virtual, and they’ve even assigned a dedicated principal to run it. They’re treating enrollment there as a binding choice -—the way you would for any other school.

The enrollment window for PSD Virtual closed on August 8th, and unlike some other districts, there isn’t any wiggle room there.

I asked Madeline Noblett about that. She’s a district spokeswoman and she said the district had to draw the line somewhere. The district’s goal was to create an environment of consistency, for kids and their teachers and families. So for consistency and for staffing and budgeting purposes, Poudre School District is emphasizing getting a good grasp on solid enrollment numbers.

So if PSD Virtual is a separate district school, are those students getting the same curriculum as the rest of the schools?

Again, it’s mixed. Madeline Noblett told me that the district has purchased curriculum materials from two different not-for-profit groups — the Colorado Digital Learning Solutions and the Colorado iLearn Collaborative — and that PSD Virtual teachers, who will by and large be regular district teachers, will be able to combine those with district-adapted curriculum materials. So, some of it has been generated in-house and some of it from outside vendors.

Whatever materials the teachers are working with, Noblett wants to reassure parents that all PSD Virtual classroom will teach to Colorado state standards and that all district children will be equally prepared to start school next, year no matter where they are learning this year.

OK, so it sounds like Poudre School District is kind of going for maximum consistency, maximum structure for its virtual school. What about if we look a little further south, to Boulder: What does virtual learning look like there?

Boulder Valley School District is an entirely different animal. If Poudre Schools are on the rigid end of the spectrum, Boulder is leaning hard into flexibility for families.

Boulder is offering more options than any other district I know of, and they’ve set it all up for fluidity. The idea is to let parents revise their decisions to align with changing pandemic conditions.

In Boulder, like with most other school districts, they’re offering what’s called a hybrid learning model, which is basically, you pivot between remote learning and in-person learning with you regular teacher, depending on public health conditions and what the district is doing.

Then – and this is the unique part — they are also offering a 100% remote learning option that is really like an extension of the neighborhood school, with neighborhood school teachers, and your normal classmates. They call this the 100% remote home school option, home school meaning the district school you are tied to. It’s pretty much the remote arm of the hybrid model, but when the hybrid students go back to the classroom, the remote students just continue on at home.

In some cases, they are even hooking teachers up with a virtual learning system that allows them to simultaneously teach to the in-person class and the remote students — sort of a dual classroom.

Area superintendent Margaret Crespo says Boulder Valley Schools intentionally designed this for maximum flexibility — families can pretty fluidly switch between the hybrid and the 100% remote home school models, with just a little bit of advance notice. She said a lot of families want to stay connected to their neighborhood school community, and this remote home school option lets them do just that.

I’m curious about that fluidity. If Poudre Schools needed to lock parents into a decision for a full year to make their online learning plan work, how is Boulder able to do this?

Well, they’ve had a head start in the whole virtual learning arena. Boulder Universal is the district’s online school, designed around self-paced, asynchronous learning — that’s when teachers and students aren’t going online at the same time and interacting. Boulder Universal has operated for years, and it’s pretty well established.

Crespo says Boulder Universal is 100% remote, no connection to school — that is, it is its own, self-contained school. Students are essentially online the entire time, although there are some opportunities for face-to-face activities.

So, Boulder had the bandwidth, and the will, to create a third option in the middle that allows for more fluidity. Margaret Crespo says Boulder’s largest priorities are meeting parents’ diverse needs, and being adaptable to changing circumstances.

Between 15% and 19% of students in the district so far have opted for some form on online-only learning.

One common thread here though, is that launching a virtual school takes a lot of resources. Now, Greeley-Evans, Poudre and Boulder schools — those are pretty large districts, pretty well-resourced. What do I do if I’m in a smaller school district, fewer students, fewer resources. If I’m in the school district in Windsor, for instance, creating a virtual school is feeling pretty out of my reach at this moment. How can I give my families this option during the pandemic?

There’s a state-sponsored virtual school program designed for Windsor and all the other small and rural districts in the state. It’s called Colorado Digital Learning Services, or CDLS, and it’s the same state-supported nonprofit that is supplying Poudre schools with some of its virtual curriculum. The group’s expertise is supplemental online courses that give smaller school districts access to hard to offer classes.

But executive director Dan Morris says they started to expand their services last spring, when the Gov. Jared Polis contacted him to ask if CDLS could provide more online options to support school districts during the pandemic.

Over the summer, Morris’s team developed a more complete virtual learning platform, with a full curriculum, that districts can adopt wholesale if they lack the resources to create their own district virtual schools.

Since the registration period began, the system has been overwhelmed with enrollments. Morris said that in just one week, he’s received more than three times as many registrations as they used to receive over the course of an entire year.

CDLS purchases curriculum materials from a number of outside vendors. But they only hire Colorado licensed teachers to teach that material. And students have to enroll through their home districts. So, it’s not just a generic virtual school with no ties to the community. And it’s not an asynchronous, completely self-paced experience, like Boulder Universal.

And it just so happens, that the group’s biggest enrollment right now, is coming from the school district in Windsor.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for August 20. You can find the full episode here.

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