Some school districts are creating permanent online and independent study options to be more flexible for students
Monica Spydell never would have thought to enroll her second-grade daughter in online classes before the pandemic.
But after schools closed and forced her family and others into distance learning, Spydell was surprised to see Sierra, who attends Torrey Pines Elementary in La Jolla, thriving in online learning. A talkative girl, Sierra was speaking up frequently in Zoom classes and still had a love for learning, even though it was online, her mother said.
Now Spydell plans to keep Sierra in online learning next year, even though San Diego Unified intends to offer full-time, in-person learning at all its schools next fall. Spydell says she worries about Sierra’s health if she goes back to school; she has gotten pneumonia twice.
“If there’s an option for us to not have to worry about it, we’d rather just take that for now,” Spydell said. “In the grand scheme of her life, spending a year and a half home with us and having a good time doing it … for us, it’s the easier choice.”
While state leaders are expecting all schools to be fully open for in-person learning by the start of the school year, that doesn’t mean all students will return to school campuses.
Inspired by the pandemic, many school districts are creating permanent, online-only or independent study programs. School leaders said they want to offer more flexible learning options for students who, for example, may not want the social pressures of a traditional school environment or who may prefer to work independently.
School officials also want to provide an option for families like Spydell’s, who are still unsure about sending their children back to school. Some parents wonder if COVID variants will raise local case rates or if COVID vaccines will be available to children under age 12 by then.
Online school, home school and independent study are education styles that have been championed by a sector of charter schools, which are publicly-funded schools run independently of school districts. But those options were rarely used by traditional public schools. The pandemic may be changing that.
Carlsbad Unified, for instance, said it is expanding its independent study program to students in all grade levels for next school year.
“Schools around the nation realized during the pandemic that some things need to be done differently,” said Ben Churchill, its superintendent. “Schools … realized that we can learn positive lessons from our experience over the past 12 months. We can grow and change and do a better job 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 provide under a March agreement with the union.
Before the pandemic, the district had only offered an online school for high schoolers and a K-12 independent study program, which involves less direct instruction than an online learning program.
The district’s new virtual academy will extend its online learning option to grades K-8.
A big difference between distance learning and the district’s new virtual academy is that the academy’s teachers will be dedicated solely to online instruction. There will be no more juggling, where teachers try to educate in-person students and online students at the same time, as there is now with hybrid learning.
Sweetwater Union High School District has known for at least 10 years that it needed an online option for students, said Dan Winters, the district’s chief of system improvement and innovation. The district watched as students left its schools for charter schools that offer full online programs, he said.
It took a pandemic for the district to finally get a virtual school off the ground. Last July the district created Launch Academy specifically for students who want to be in online learning for the entire school year, not just until schools reopened. So far about 230 students signed up for Launch this year.
“It was a distinct program, not just to be a band-aid, but the online program we always wanted to create,” Winters said. “We knew there was an interest and a need in our community to provide such a program for our families.”
In Launch Academy, a teacher who acts as an academic coach will oversee up to 25 students, meeting them virtually at least once every two weeks for support, Winters said. A full-time counselor also will be dedicated to Launch Academy to help students complete their needed courses and provide mental health support.
Students will mostly learn on their own using an online curriculum, but they will be given chances to have in-person social interaction with other students, such as in student clubs.
Winters said online learning is not a good fit for all students, a fact educators say was made clear during the past year of school closures and distance learning.
“Students have to have some level of independence, or at least support from their family, to work independently,” Winters said.
Next school year, Poway Unified will be offering at least four different kinds of learning options — in-person learning; online school; home school, where parents help teach their kids; and independent study, where students work mostly on their own.
“We’re trying to be as accommodating as possible to our students and families,” said Carol Osborne, associate superintendent of learning support services at Poway.
Poway already was offering home school and independent study programs, and typically dozens of families were taking advantage of them each year.
Enrollment in those programs multiplied during the pandemic. Poway’s home school program used to enroll about 35 students a year; this year more than 600 families chose it.
Now, like San Diego Unified, Poway is creating a new online academy for K-8 students. Previously the district’s virtual learning had served only high-schoolers.
The online academy will be different from distance learning in that there will be less Zoom time for kids and more chances to have independent working time or small-group instruction, Osborne said. Students in the online academy also may be able to do in-person extracurricular activities, such as band, and use on-campus labs.
“A lot of our middle-schoolers have been on Zoom for each of their courses all day long,” Osborne said. “This will be built with more flexibility for students.”