Virus in Vermont: The pluses and minuses of online learning

Olivia Johnson, a first-grader in St. Albans, demonstrates how she signs in to her homeroom on her tablet from her desk at home on Friday, February 19, 2021. Looking on is her mother Elizabeth who also works from home. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In many ways, first-grader Olivia Johnson’s classroom is not so unusual. Homeroom starts at 8:10 each morning, and on any given day she will work out math problems on an abacus or read a short writing assignment out loud to her classmates.

But instead of filing into the brown-brick school building in St. Albans Town, Olivia stays put, logging into class on an iPad. Her mother, a medical coder, also works remotely, and Olivia settles at a small table next to her mom’s desk in their upstairs home office.

Most Vermont students have returned physically to the classroom this year in some form or another. The majority are attending class on a hybrid schedule, alternating between in-person and online learning, according to monthly survey data published by the Agency of Education, and about one-third are in-person four or five days a week.

But thousands of families opted for all-remote learning instead. For some, it was over fears that school might bring the virus home and sicken high-risk family members. Others wanted stability and believed choosing virtual school would allow them to avoid the turmoil that rolling closures might bring. The number of students learning remotely this year has changed from month to month, but in January, just shy of 14% of all public school students — about 9,500 kids — were taking attendance online.

Vermont has taken a local-control approach to schooling during the pandemic, and virtual learning is no exception. Some school districts built all-remote options completely in-house and teachers were wholly dedicated to the project. Others leaned on the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative, which allows schools to share teachers across districts. Still others, facing more demand than they had capacity for, paid for third-party vendors to fill in.

Unsurprisingly, families have had mixed experiences. One parent called remote learning, “an overall incredible opportunity for my kiddo,” in a message to VTDigger. Yet another described it as “an absolute nightmare.”

Elizabeth Johnson, Olivia’s mother, speaks highly of Maple Run Unified School District’s efforts. Her daughter’s teachers arrange regular drop-offs of lesson materials, such as books, a whiteboard or laminated worksheets; the materials arrive in a little basket by the family’s back door.

The first grader receives about an hour and half of live online instruction each day, split up into three sections consisting of a teacher and a small group of students. That’s about as much Zoom as Johnson thinks her daughter could probably handle at a time. In between online sessions, Olivia works on assignments independently.

“I’ve been so impressed with their responsiveness, their flexibility and how they’ve structured their whole program,” Johnson said.

Olivia is thriving academically, her mother said. As Johnson describes the teachers’ one-on-one “office hours” on Wednesdays, Olivia proudly pipes in, unprompted: “We really don’t do office hours, ’cause I do amazing!”

But, despite Olivia’s success, her mother acknowledges it’s been a struggle to juggle a full-time job, a new baby and a young child attending school from home.

“There are many nights I’ve cried,” Johnson said.

For helping to keep her head above water, Johnson credits her support system: her husband, her job’s understanding manager (also a mom), and Olivia’s grandparents, including Johnson’s mother, who remains quarantined so she can provide childcare.

And while Olivia’s schoolwork is going well, she is isolated socially. Her best friend is in a different cohort, and they only see each other briefly during the early morning Zoom class. For a recent writing assignment, Olivia wrote about her fifth birthday in the summer of 2019, as the last one with a party.

Olivia has made new friends virtually this year, with whom she plays games online, such as Minecraft where users can build their own worlds out of blocks. The six-year-old said she’s eager to return to school in person come fall — if she can get the Covid vaccine.

“I want to see my new friends,” Olivia said. She later clarified: “in real life.”





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