Local schools plan for online learning to stay

Montgomery County agency is forming online school program for local districts

Ohio educators say remote learning options for students exploded during the pandemic and are likely going to stay a part of future local schooling much more than before COVID.

All students learned remotely last spring when COVID-19 hit. But tens of thousands decided to stay online this year, even after their schools returned primarily to in-person classes, either due to COVID concerns or a better educational fit.

“We can’t unlearn these lessons. Kids have learned to learn in a different way in the past year, and you can’t put that back in a box,” Shannon Cox, the superintendent for Montgomery County’s Educational Service Center, said this week. “But there’s going to be a couple of years of transformation of getting (remote learning) right, or at least better than it is now.”

The Montgomery County ESC is working on a Remote Learning Center partnership with local school districts to offer online learning to families who want it in 2021-22.

“The students will stay enrolled in their home schools, but the ESC will provide the teachers and the (remote-learning) content, in partnership with the school district,” Cox said. “We want kids to still be able to play sports for their school, or be in the musical, or go to family fun night. We want them to still feel that belonging to their school district.”

According to a flier sent to school districts, the ESC program would cost the school districts $1500 per student per semester. That would cover four core courses (English, math, science and social studies), plus one elective in grades K-5 (art, music, etc.), and two electives in grades 6-12 ( foreign language, art, media, career exploration, etc.).

Local examples

The ESC has been offering those services to 60 Valley View students since Feb. 1 as a pilot project. Those 60 are fully online and are being taught by ESC staff, not Valley View teachers.

Superintendent Ben Richards said once Valley View went back to in-person classes five days a week, there wasn’t enough time for Valley View’s teachers to properly educate both in-class and online students simultaneously.

“It was taxing on our teachers. It’s pretty difficult to teach online kids and in-person kids at the same time,” Richards said. “This allows us to meet the needs of the 3% (who are staying online), while better meeting the needs of the other 97% in-person.”

Cox said in several districts, there were enough students choosing to stay in fully online classes that the schools could pull out a teacher or two from each grade level or subject and dedicate them to teaching those online students.

But in smaller districts, if it was just four third-graders and six fourth-graders, there weren’t enough teachers to have someone fully dedicated to the online work. And a smaller district might only have one teacher for algebra or music or Spanish, limiting their flexibility to teach both in-person and online.

Credit: Jeremy P. Kelley

Credit: Jeremy P. Kelley

While Valley View had fewer than 5% of students choosing to stay online, as of March, Northmont and Centerville had about 25%, and Northridge had more than 40% of students choose a fully online model.

Mad River Superintendent Chad Wyen said more than 600 students are fully online in his district, which has otherwise used a hybrid model this school year. A family survey revealed that about 125 of those students hope to stay online this fall when the district returns to a traditional fully in-person model.

“We’ve learned through our hybrid model that there is a model of remote learning that can be very effective,” Wyen said. “But that model needs to have a classroom teacher engaged with students. When I found out that the ESC was going to do that … it was really a natural fit for us.”

Other online options

Enrollment in Ohio’s online charter schools rose quickly after the COVID-induced shutdowns. Some families sought out schools with more established remote learning models, after school districts had to make the unexpected plunge into online work in March.

Great River Connections Academy hit their enrollment cap for last year (1,250 students) quickly after the March shutdowns, then opened this school year with 1,480 students. The larger Ohio Connections Academy went from 4,606 online students just before the shutdowns to 5,836 in September.

Marie Hanna, superintendent at Ohio Connections, said that number is down to 5,621 now, and she expects it to decrease again in the fall.

“Most of the students adjusted well to our program,” Hanna said. “We expect and understand that even though the families had a good experience with us, that they will return to their school once they feel it is safe.”

Jason Swineheart, school leader for Great River Connections, said many of their new students had success and appreciated the schedule flexibility they found. But he said online school is not for everyone, and for some, the work and personal responsibility required were a rude awakening.

“I always try to push families to do their research on what’s out there,” Swineheart said. “We have information sessions … for families to figure out whether this is going to be the best fit. Families should do that no matter what school option they’re taking. Knowing what you’re getting into is important.”

Motivated students do best

The information the ESC is sending to Montgomery County schools emphasizes the same idea that online school is not for everyone. Their “indicators for success” in remote learning include the need for students to be self-motivated and organized, and for parents to have time to provide support.

Cox said families will have a sign-up process for the online program and schools likely won’t approve students who didn’t succeed or stay engaged in this year’s online classes. But students who have medical concerns, or have to work to support their family, or have struggled with bullying in an in-person setting might be good fits.

Richards said this program can be a tool for Valley View to use, but in a limited way.

“I think (the past year) reaffirmed that for the vast majority of kids, in-person learning is what we truly believe is best for our kids,” he said.

Big picture for state

In an interview this week Ohio school superintendent Paolo DeMaria thinks there’s “a high likelihood” that remote learning opportunities will increase as Ohio K-12 schools move forward the next few years.

“Different approaches work for different students,” DeMaria said. “We’ve seen that there’s a place for this kind of learning, so then the question becomes, how do you support it and make sure it’s quality?”

The Ohio House and Senate are considering legislation to extend school districts’ 2020-21 Remote Learning Plan language to future years. It is currently set to expire in June. But Cox said since a bill might not pass until June, and schools have to make plans now, so the ESC moved ahead with its system.

In the meantime, the Ohio Department of Education says current state law allows schools four ways to provide remote learning approaches in 2021-22. They are blended learning declarations (for a mix of in-person and online), credit flexibility plans, alternative schools for at-risk students and waivers to create Innovative Education Pilot Programs.

Cox works with two statewide groups that are looking at major transformations in K-12 education — RemotEDx and Journey to the (Next) Summit. DeMaria said online learning is just one issue the state is looking at, and that it can be effective if the student and family are engaged and the instruction is good.

“If somebody just slaps together an online tool and says, ‘hey kids, sign in and do your work,’ that’s going to be less effective than if you have a person who actively manages the class, and there’s personal interaction as well as online learning.”

Wyen of Mad River, framed the question as an equity issue.

There’s always going to be a need to provide education in different ways to best meet students’ needs,” he said. “If that’s best served remotely, or in-person, or blended, we just want to make sure we give our kids a good experience.”

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