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The year of learning virtually: a challenge for students and teachers alike

Some find online learning suits their needs while others struggle

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part story looking at how districts in Grand Rapids, Rockford and Wyoming have handled virtual schooling, and what they’ve learned for the future. 

Multiple districts – Sydney Piatek felt safe going to school in person last fall, but there was another person she worried about: her uncle, who has cancer. 

Her desire to not risk infecting him with the virus is why the Rockford High School junior switched to all-virtual learning for the second trimester beginning mid-November. She’s stayed in that mode, where she feels safer around her uncle and fine with her learning. 

“I like it a lot because you’re able to work ahead and work at your own pace,” she said on a recent afternoon. “I feel like I’m learning the same amount of things I would normally in school.” 

Even better, unlike most virtual students, Sydney can always go around the corner for help from a faculty member if she needs to. She spends her school days in a separate, isolated room at the high school, working online along with a few other virtual students. She even goes into the main school for choir practice. 

It’s a space that was made available by Rockford Virtual, an all-online school launched this year by Rockford Public Schools, to provide a place to study away from home and in-person help for students who need it. The former tech lab also serves as the office for Kelly Amshey, principal of Rockford Virtual.

The separate room is one example of how districts have accommodated students who chose virtual learning but want more personal attention. Local districts have made other adjustments as the year has progressed to better serve students who have stayed online because of the pandemic.

Overall, Rockford Virtual students have had “strikingly good success” even as some have returned to in-person learning, Amshey said. 

“I was very, very concerned we were going to have massive failures, and we didn’t,” Amshey said. “It was very consistent with what we would see in a building. It really does speak to the fact our teachers are still connecting with their students.

Wyoming High School junior Mikayla Reno has already completed her course work for the year (courtesy)

Works for Some, Not so Much for Others

Helping students succeed online remains crucial for districts, even as more return to classrooms. A recent government survey found 60% of fourth-graders and 68% of eighth-graders nationwide were learning at home at least part of the week, with Black, Latino and Asian students online much more than white students.

As in Rockford, educators in Wyoming and Grand Rapids say they’ve seen some students do well online despite many struggling with it. Not having to deal with the social distractions of school helps some students focus on their work and even work ahead if they want.

Wyoming High School junior Mikayla Reno has already completed her classes for the school year, thanks to having the ability to work through the curriculum at her own pace. She opted for virtual learning because she likes the flexibility of staying at home, where she can take care of her two puppies. 

“I never really enjoyed going to school,” Mikayla said. “I never had people to talk to or hang out with, so being online kept me away from people and all of the high school drama.”

Though she does miss seeing other students, she likes the free time she’s allowed with classes on the Edgenuity platform. She checked in with a mentor teacher twice a week and made monthly Zoom calls to address any problems and keep track of goals in English, geometry, environmental science, sociology and introduction to art.

“I am doing very well in all of my classes,” she said. “I definitely went ahead of everyone just because I have so much time on my hands, but my grades were similar to how they were when I was in-person learning.” 

But for many others, learning from home presents its own distractions, too little structure and too much social isolation. As City High Middle School senior Lemaria Benson-Stevens recently told School News Network, “Learning through a screen was a challenge,” explaining it was hard not to be distracted and bored over several hours of screen time.

More Returning to Classrooms 

Lemaria and all other GRPS students learned 100% virtually until mid-January, when the district offered a choice of virtual or hybrid in-person learning. Last week, GRPS expanded its K-8 hybrid option from two to four in-person days while continuing to offer the all-virtual model. Lemaria hopes the expansion will be extended to high schools, to allow “more in-class time to focus on work and space for seniors to have a ‘normal’ last year.”

County and federal health guidelines that now allow 3-feet distances between desks drove the district’s decision, after receiving “countless emails and social media posts advocating for 100% in person,” said GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt. Lack of classroom contact with teachers has put many students behind academically and caused them to struggle emotionally, officials say. 

How far behind academically? Grade and assignment failure rates for all students have increased by perhaps 5 to 10%, said GRPS Deputy Superintendent Ron Gorman. Although tests of academic progress so far have been comparable to previous years, about 2,000 virtual students didn’t take them, he said, making results hard to assess. 

It’s clear the district will need to address the inequities in student learning losses, Gorman said. 

“Our number-one priority when we get back in person has to be addressing the areas where students are struggling (and) falling the furthest behind. If we are truly about equity, and I believe we are, we need to provide resources to those who are most vulnerable.”

Rockford Virtual students work on assignments in a separate office set aside for them: from left, ninth-grader Luke Wonsack, junior Güntter Nordquist, sixth-grader Ethan Brandow and junior Sydney Piatek (courtesy)

Self-motivation Key for Virtual Students  

In Wyoming, where students are learning either in person or online, teachers have effectively engaged K-6 virtual students by individualizing instruction, said Jennifer Slanger, director of teaching and learning. 

However, for older students learning on Edgenuity with teacher mentors, self-motivation has been a challenge, she said: “Students are completely asynchronous. That makes it really hard when you talk about student engagement, because the students have to be so independent.”    

Across the board, the district is being flexible with assessments. Slanger said teachers are given the opportunity to have students demonstrate content mastery through projects, demonstrations or other ways not involving regular tests and exams. And while the district will compare the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests of virtual and in-person students, she said the possibility of parents helping their children at home presents an unknown variable.

“I am anticipating that there will be a gap in favor of students in person,” said Slanger.

In Rockford, Amshey said she is pleased with virtual student MAP test results so far, but cautious about parents possibly “helping kids more than they know” without intending to. Students will take SAT, M-STEP and AP tests in person in designated classrooms, she said. 

Rockford Virtual has made adjustments over the year to better serve students, including reassigning teachers to their subject specialties rather than overseeing students in all content areas. More middle school electives have been offered this trimester, along with more art, music and PE for elementary students. 

A recent survey found about 60% of Rockford families appreciated the virtual option and are largely satisfied with the district’s Apex platform for middle and high school students, Amshey said. In fact, grades 10-12 saw a gain in virtual students this trimester, with the option proving to be especially popular for juniors like Sydney Piatek. She spends each school day working in the office of Rockford Virtual, “just to stay focused and keep motivated,” she said.

“I’m in school but I’m not,” Sydney added. “I like it a lot.” 

Erin Albanese contributed to this story.

CONNECT

Part one: Students, teachers and parents climb the virtual learning curve

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio

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