Pickerington Schools planning to continue online learning as option next school year

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group

Pickerington Schools will look to continue an online learning model to students in kindergarten through 12th grade next school year.

As a result of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the district established a Virtual Learning Academy for the 2020-21 school year that enabled K-12 students to take all classes online for the entire school year.

Brian Seymour, Pickerington Schools director of instructional technology.

The district is completing plans for the 2021-22 model, and students who enroll in the VLA again would commit for the entire school year.

“We’re in the process of looking at all of our options and trying to figure out how we can best meet the needs of all of our kids,” Superintendent Chris Briggs said.

The district in February surveyed students who enrolled in the VLA for the 2020-21 school year, their parents and teachers who taught classes online.

Of the 1,818 students enrolled, 665 responded and 295 indicated interest in continuing in the VLA in 2021-22.

Of those, approximately 54% said the pandemic remains a concern and a primary reason they would enroll in the fall. However, 10% of parents who responded said they wouldn’t enroll their kids in the VLA if the district returns to in-person classes full time next year.

Additionally, 5% said they’d enroll their children in the VLA due to medical conditions beyond the COVID-19 coronavirus; 4% said they would enroll their students due to concerns about bullying; and 2% cited traveling reasons.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to do now is how can we get past the idea that the (VLA) is just because of the pandemic ... and how can we continue to utilize this as another option for our students,” said Brian Seymour, the district's director of instructional technology.

Seymour said the number of students who enroll in the VLA for next school year will determine the number of staff who will be dedicated to online teaching. 

As a result, registration for the VLA is expected to be held in “late April, early May,” Seymour said, and VLA teachers will take additional professional-development training during the summer.

As a result of 16.5% of survey respondents saying they were “slightly happy” with the amount of time VLA students spent working with teachers and another 23.9% reporting they were “not happy at all,” the district will look to ways VLA students can get more online instruction directly or assistance from teachers.

“One of the things we’d like to move toward more next year is fully virtual teachers,” Seymour said. “We think that would add more flexibility. We think that would add more consistency to the program, as well.”

As part of the enrollment process, Seymour said the district is hoping teachers and administrators can play a more active role in helping to identify students who might benefit from online model.

He said the district also is seeking to enhance lines of communication between students and teachers, as well as parents and teachers.

“We need to make sure that those students and parents that are involved in the VLA are getting the same amount of attention as the students in our buildings are,” he said.

Currently, VLA teachers from each school building instruct students from their respective buildings. In 2021-22, Seymour said, VLA teachers may teach specific grade levels from multiple buildings.

Additionally, Seymour said, the district plans to set required times for VLA students to meet online with teachers to track progress and address any necessary intervention or additional instruction needs.

District officials also are exploring models through which students, particularly at the high school level, would receive instruction from teachers three days a week and work independently the other two days.

Also at the high school level, VLA students likely will take their core-credit classes – English language arts, math, science and social studies – online but could be required to take elective classes in person.

It would be done this way, Seymour said, to maintain adequate in-person staffing for electives given the low number of high school students are expressing interest in the VLA.   

“This way, it allows our families to continue to have all of the choices of all the electives that we currently give to all of our kids in the building,” Seymour said. “The biggest thing we need to do is figure out what electives the kids are signing up for and how we can fit those in.”

In addition to determining how to offer elective classes, Seymour said, the district will have to decide if it can provide transportation to students who might only attend in-person classes for a portion of the school day.  

Seymour said gifted students, English language learners and special education students would be able to enroll in the VLA program.  

Although district officials project enrollment to be relatively low in 2020-21, they said it is expected to increase over time and as the district refines online instruction and course offerings.

“We would like to continue doing this,” Seymour said. “We can continue to do this as long as we don’t have to add additional staff.

“As long as we can meet those needs, we would like to continue.”

Briggs said the district has evaluated other districts, including Hilliard City Schools, that have maintained online learning programs and seen growth. 

In Hilliard, he said, enrollment has gone from 250 to about 2,000.

“We kept coming back to most of the successful districts have started at a much smaller rate,” Briggs said. “For example, Hilliard. Now they’ve grown it into probably 15, 16, 17 teachers that they have designated just for their VLA.”

Additional information about the district’s plan is expected to be rolled out through mailings to students’ homes and through the district website at pickerington.k12.oh.us.

nellis@thisweeknews.com

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