Monica Spadel would never have considered enrolling her second-grader daughter in online classes before the pandemic.
But after schools closed and his family and others were forced to learn remotely, Spaidel was surprised to see Sierra, who attended Torrey Pines Elementary School in La Jolla, thrive on online learning. Her mother said Sierra, who is a very talkative girl, talked a lot in Zoom classes and still loves to learn, even if it’s online.
Spydell now plans to continue learning online in Sierra next year, although San Diego Unified plans to offer full-time in-person tutoring at all of its schools next fall. Spydell says he’s worried about Sierra’s health if he goes back to school; He had pneumonia twice.
“If there’s an option for us not to worry about her, we’d rather take that for now,” Spydell said. “In the grand scheme of his life, spending a year and a half at home with us and enjoying that… for us, that is the easiest option.”
Although state leaders expect all schools to be fully open for in-person learning by the start of the school year, this does not mean that all students will be back on school campuses.
Inspired by the pandemic, many school districts are creating permanent, online-only, or independent study programs. School officials say they want to offer more flexible educational options for students who, for example, don’t want the social pressures of a traditional school environment or who prefer to work independently.
School officials also want to offer an option to families like Spydell, who are not yet sure whether to send their children back to school. Some parents question whether COVID variants will increase local case rates or if COVID vaccines will be available to children under 12 by then.
Online school, home school, and independent study are education modes supported by a sector of charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that operate independently of school districts. But traditional public schools have rarely used these options. The pandemic may be changing that.
For example, Carlsbad Unified said it is expanding its independent study program for students at all grade levels for the upcoming school year.
“Schools across the country during the pandemic have realized that some things need to be done differently,” said Ben Churchill, superintendent of the school. “Schools have realized… that we can learn positive lessons from our experience in the past 12 months. We can grow, change and do better for students.”
San Diego Unified is in talks with its teachers union to create a new virtual academy next school year, which the district promised to offer under a March agreement with the union.
Before the pandemic, the county was offering an online school only for high school students and an independent K-12 study program, which includes less direct instruction than an online learning program.
The district’s new virtual academy will expand your online learning option to grades K through 8th grade.
One of the big differences between distance learning and the new virtual academy in the region is that the academy’s teachers will be dedicated exclusively to online teaching. There will be no more manipulation, as teachers try to educate students in person and students online at the same time, as is the case now with blended learning.
Dan Winters, district chief of system improvement and innovation, said Sweetwater Union High School has known for at least 10 years that it needs an online option for students. He said the district was watching students leave their schools to go to charter schools that offer comprehensive online programs.
It took an epidemic for the area to launch a virtual school. Last July, the district created the Launch Academy specifically for students who want to participate in online learning for the entire academic year, not just until schools reopen. So far, about 230 students have signed up for this year’s Launch Program.
“It was a different show, not just for the band, but the online show we’ve always wanted to do,” Winters said. “We knew there was an interest and a need in our community to offer such a program to our families.”
At Launch Academy, a teacher serving as an academic coach will supervise up to 25 students, meeting them roughly at least once every two weeks for support, Winters said. A full-time Launch Academy counselor will also be assigned to help students complete their necessary courses and provide mental health support.
Students will mainly learn on their own using an online curriculum, but will have the opportunity for personal social interaction with other students, such as in student clubs.
Winters said that online learning is not a good option for all students, a fact teachers say has become evident over the past year of school closings and distance learning.
“Students should have some level of independence, or at least the support of their families, to work independently,” Winters said.
In the upcoming school year, Poway Unified will offer at least four different types of learning options: personalized learning; Online school Home school, where parents help in the education of their children; and independent study, where students work mainly on their own.
“We try to be as accommodating as possible for our students and families,” said Carol Osborne, Associate Supervisor of Learning Support Services at Poway.
Poway already offers homeschooling and independent study programs, usually taking advantage of dozens of families each year.
Enrollment in those programs doubled during the pandemic. The Poway homeschool program is used to enroll about 35 students per year; It was chosen by more than 600 families this year.
Now, like San Diego Unified, Poway is creating a new online academy for K-8 students. Previously, the school district’s virtual learning served only high school students.
Osborne said the online academy would be different from distance learning in that there would be less zooming time for children and more opportunities for independent work time or small group teaching. Students in the online academy will also be able to do extracurricular activities in person, such as band, and use the campus labs.
“Many of our high school students have been on Zoom in every one of their courses all day,” Osborne said. “This will be built with more flexibility for students.”