Online-based schools tackle pandemic differently

Originally aired on WBND-TV – February 2, 2020

As schools continue to run during this pandemic, there is an emphasis on virtual schooling we haven’t seen before. Now you’d think that a school-based solely online wouldn’t be as affected by the pandemic. Well, that’s far from the truth.

After nearly a year, kids have had a lot of practice with online learning. It looks pretty simple, a couple of clicks and you’re live. 

When schools across Indiana had to close last March, it was a rush to get learning to the internet. Many districts even having to upgrade their virtual learning operations entirely. But what about schools that have always existed online?

“There have been some adjustments but our you know, class schedules, their experience in the classroom, the teachers, they interact within the students. None of that changed. They didn’t miss a single day a class,” Elizabeth Sliger, Head of School for Indiana Digital, said.

Based out of Randolph County Indiana, Indiana Digital Learning School is tied to Union School Corporation in Modoc. Modoc is a town of fewer than 200 people but serves students all over Indiana.

“We do have students from all 92 counties,” she said.

As the nationwide push to online learning started, students flocked to programs like Sliger’s.

“Our first year was 2017.,” She said “We did see a significant increase for this year, we grew by about 40%. Prior to COVID, we served close to 4000 students about 3800. And we serve around 6000 now.”

Downstate at Indianapolis-based Indiana Connections Academy, they also saw more parents enrolling their kids. But, it wasn’t a big surprise.

“We see increased enrollments every year,” Chandre Sanchez Reyes, the Executive Director for Indiana Connections Academy said. “We do have new students, but we also lose students.”

Reyes said online schooling has become a backup option for parents.

“Every year, many of our families come to us for just short term fixes, right? We call them, you know, to fill in gaps. My son is a new diabetic. And so we’re not sure how this insulin is going to go. So we’re going to enroll in a virtual school where I can keep an eye on him for the next semester. And then we’re just going to go back to traditional brick and mortar,” she said.

But this past year the difference has been, more parents choosing online learning and sticking to it.

“We didn’t lose very many students, we actually kept almost 80% of our students, which was just a tad higher than we typically do,” she said.

And just like traditional schools, online districts have had to spend more as more students come online.

Except they don’t receive as much funding from the state.

“Lots of technology, lots of need for laptops and connection out there in Indiana, especially for rural students,” Sliger said.

“But those are very limited. And so with the pandemic, there came this whole new wave of families that, like you said, typically would not have fallen in that category that found themselves than in that category. So we did we purchased hotspots,” Reyes said.

“I mean, it really is every day, watch every penny you can activity. It’s very expensive to get enough technology out there. However, it is a frontline need. There’s it’s just absolutely necessary. So we’ve prioritized that and teachers and then we work from there,” Sliger said.

Administrators also having to find the money for personnel.

“We also had an increase in teachers that wanted to work for us,” Reyes said.

“Our staff grew by almost 100 people this year to serve those additional students,” Sliger said. “Teacher recruitment is tough in Indiana, especially for particular certifications. It is not always easy to staff.”

And the states’ substitute shortage is affecting online schools just as much as brick and mortar.

“Yes, we do try to staff subs for any missed class, because we hold class synchronously online similar to this every day for every student. So when a teacher is out for illness or any other type of leave, our goal is to have a sub that is extremely hard,” Sliger said.

Forcing these online school districts to get creative.

“We’ve reached out to some colleges,” she said. “We’ve been able to offer internship hours online to some of those students.”

Savanna Rosas has been a student through Indiana Connections for 3 years and said even with more students and staff, they are still getting the same education and one on one help from teachers.

“I’ve seen it. They’ve had to deal with more students, but I don’t get any less teacher time,” Rosas said.

It’s social interactions that many like Rosas are more worried about.

“I can’t see my family. I can’t see my friends. So that social interaction that I had once is now gone,” she said.

“What little social outlets our students did have before is probably gone away,” Reyes said.

“I really want it to be over. I mean, it didn’t affect me school wise, which I’m very grateful for. Because I’m not like, behind or anything, but I really wish it would be over so I can go back to the past normal, you know,” Rosas said.

As long as students can continue to learn and connect with each other, Sliger said that’s all that matters.

“It’s been hard on everybody, but by teaming together, I understanding that we’re not alone. You know, we get through one day at a time,” she said.

Sliger said that they would love to help build learning communities of virtual teachers across Indiana because working together will just mean students are getting the best education possible.

To learn more about Indiana Digital Learning School, visit indls.k12.com

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