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Northwest Arkansas demands for virtual learning options continue to grow

by Mary Jordan | September 7, 2021 at 7:31 a.m.
Teachers aid Maria Mosquera (from left) and first grade teacher Kelly Parks teach their virtual class, Monday, August 30, 2021 at the Rogers Virtual Academy in Rogers. The pandemic caused Rogers Virtual Academy to open for grades K-12 faster than the district had planned. Check out nwaonline.com/210831Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

The covid-19 pandemic has changed education, leading some Northwest Arkansas school districts to permanently expand the virtual learning options they offer, administrators say.

Districts featured a variety of in-person, virtual and blended learning opportunities for the 2020-21 school year to help mitigate the spread of the covid-19 virus, administrators said.

Schools are fully open for traditional, in-person learning this school year, yet administrators note enrollment in virtual learning options is surpassing pre-pandemic numbers.

Administrators say families choose virtual education for a variety of reasons, with the covid-19 pandemic being just one of them.

Geraldine and Frank Whiting of Little Flock said the pandemic initially factored into their decision to enroll their two children in Rogers Virtual Learning through the Rogers School District last school year.

“It’s been great because it provided that security of staying in before the vaccines were out,” Frank Whiting said. “With or without masks, the fear was there.”

Zachery, 15, also struggled with wearing a mask and would get overheated and faint, Geraldine Whiting said.

“He didn’t want to go in person,” she said.

Zoe Whiting, 17, is a senior and Zachery is a freshman this year, Frank Whiting said. Zoe Whiting attended Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown, and Zachery attended St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Rogers prior to the pandemic, he said. Both have been so successful learning virtually they’ve opted to continue with the learning model this school year, rather than return to in-person learning.

Zoe and Zachery are both responsible kids who embraced the flexible schedule virtual learning provides and excelled by owning their education with minimal parental support, Frank Whiting said.

“Our kids were already old enough to take this on when the pandemic hit,” he said, noting virtual learning may not have been ideal for them when they were younger.

DEVELOPING OFFERINGS

The pandemic has continued to emphasize the value of virtual education for Northwest Arkansas families, administrators said, causing several districts in the region to further develop their virtual learning models.

The Bentonville, Fayetteville and Rogers districts have all expanded virtual learning to lower grade levels, administrators said.

Bentonville began offering virtual learning options for 167 students in grades 5-12 in the 2019-20 school year, said Josh Vest, virtual school administrator.

“It was a great first year, and when the covid shutdown occurred, our students’ learning was not disrupted,” Vest said.

The program was expanded in 2020-21 to serve K-12 students, he said.

“Our team knew we were providing an important service during a critical time in our students’ lives,” Vest said.

Leslee Wright, Bentonville district communications director, said 4,753 of the district’s approximately 18,000 students attended school virtually for the 2020-21 school year. Some 640 students continue to learn virtually this school year, she said, a 283% increase from pre-pandemic enrollment.

Fayetteville School District established the first online academy operated by an Arkansas public school district in 2016, said Alan Wilbourn, Fayetteville’s public information officer. The district originally offered virtual learning to grades 4-12, but expanded the offering to grades K-12 last school year, said Kim Cook, Fayetteville Virtual Academy principal.

The academy had 200 students prior to the pandemic and grew to 500 for the 2020-21 school year, she said. Enrollment this school year is about 400; the district has about 10,000 students total, she said.

“Last year there were some families who experienced virtual learning for the first time and felt that it was a good option for their students and want to continue that, despite where the pandemic is going,” Cook said.

The Rogers School District began piloting its virtual program in 2018 with 10 students, said Darla Tomasko, district virtual and alternative education executive director. The program had 178 students enrolled in grades 6-12 for the 2019-20 school-year, she said, and expanded to serve about 2,300 K-12 students for the 2020-21 school year. The school has about 480 students of the district’s more than 15,000 enrolled for virtual learning, a 169% increase from pre-pandemic enrollment.

“We still have some residuals of the pandemic, but probably about half of our kids are just those kids that would want to be virtual, whether there was a pandemic or not,” Tomasko said.

The district spent more than $660,222 for upgrades to the Virtual Learning building over the summer, administrators said. The district purchased the property at 605 W. Dyke Road in March for $575,000 to provide a location for its online learning program. The building houses staff supporting K-12 students participating in virtual learning and a location for on-site testing for students.

The building upgrades were funded through district building money and federal Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief money provided through the American Rescue Plan.

The Springdale School District has also expanded its grades and space for virtual learning by developing the former Lee Elementary School to serve Virtual Innovation Academy staff and students, said Shay Hopper, assistant principal of the Tyson School of Innovation, through which all district virtual learning is coordinated.

“It kind of gives them the best of both worlds,” Hopper said of students attending virtually through Tyson. “They have some control over their learning schedule, but they also have access to all the activities and supports that a school offers.”

The building required no development prior to moving the virtual academy into the space as it was already a fully operational school, she said.

The district closed Lee Elementary in May after 70 years of operations because of an inability to expand the space, which could no longer receive state funds for upgrades due to its age, administrators said.

Virtual Innovation Academy serves about 575 students in grades K-12, an expansion from 300 students for the 2019-20 school year and a 91% increase in enrollment, Hopper said. Virtual enrollment ranged from 770 to 4,100 for the 2020-21 school year, Hopper said. The district was originally equipped to serve students in grades 6-12 prior to the pandemic but began enrolling students in grades K-5 last school year, she said.

Springdale, with more than 22,000 students, is the largest school district in the state.

Fort Smith School District had no virtual options prior to the pandemic, said Tiffany Bone, curriculum and instruction assistant superintendent.

“We were in the process of starting a virtual charter school prior to the pandemic, and the pandemic definitely sped up efforts to get that application process going,” Bone said. “We want to be able to continue to offer that choice to our students, pandemic or no pandemic, because there are some learners who absolutely thrive in that environment.”

The district had about 1,400 out of 14,000 students in grades K-12 enrolled virtually for the 2020-21 school year, she said. The district is serving about 390 students virtually this year and is moving forward with getting a charter approved to permanently offer virtual education opportunities for students.

Approval of the school’s charter could happen by November, Bone said.

Staff supporting virtual students are currently sharing space at Barling and Sutton elementary schools but will be housed in the developing Peak Innovation Center in the future, she said.

The center is being developed in a building at 5900 Painter Lane that was donated to the district in February 2019 by the estate of William L. Hutcheson, said Gary Udouj, career education and district innovation director. The building was formerly used for shoe manufacturing and will open as Peak Innovation Center next spring, he said.

Building revisions will cost more than $13.7 million and are being funded through a millage increase approved by voters in May 2018 as well as grants and additional industry funding, Udouj said.

Peak Innovation Center will include space for staff supporting virtual education, gathering spaces for in-person learning for virtual students, as well as technical and career programming for high school students in 22 school districts throughout the River Valley, he said.

The center is a part of the district’s Vision 2023 Strategic Plan capital improvement program, Udouj said.

TOTALLY VIRTUAL

Families are choosing virtual education for a variety of reasons, said Nicole Stephens, Arkansas Connections Academy school leader.

Arkansas Connections Academy is a wholly virtual school based out of Benton-ville that opened in 2016 serving 200 students, she said. The open enrollment charter school serves students from throughout the state.

Charter schools are independent public schools with the freedom to meet specific student learning objectives.

“We’ve got families from all different kinds of backgrounds — some that are athletes, that are gymnasts, that are actors, actresses, all those different things,” Stephens said. “We’ve got other students that may have had struggles in school, and they really need more of that individualized learning to where they can kind of work at their own pace.”

Virtual learning isn’t for every student and family, Stephens said, noting Connections Academy and all virtual students rely on adult support to be successful.

“It’s really important, having that day-to-day support of a parent or a learning coach,” she said. “It really is a team effort between the families and our teachers and our students to be able to help further students.”

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette commissioned a poll conducted by telephone Nov. 5-10, 2020. The survey of 605 households of public school students had an overall margin of error of plus/minus 4.15 percentage points and plus/ minus 4.58 percentage points on questions regarding safety protocols and student safety.

About 68% of parents of online learners said they were either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the quality of education their students were receiving last fall, according to the poll.

However, 36% said online was “somewhat” worse, and 21% said it was “significantly” worse when asked to compare learning online with a typical school environment.

About 15% said online was somewhat better or significantly better for their children, while 25% said their students were learning the same online as in a traditional environment.

Districts and the academy screen students prior to enrollment in virtual education to ensure it’s the best possible fit for a family, administrators said.

Arkansas Connections Academy had an average enrollment of 1,600 students prior to the pandemic, Stephens said. The school’s enrollment grew to 2,900 for the 2020-21 school year, an increase of about 81%, she said, noting just as many students are enrolled today.

About 440 students are enrolled from Benton and Washington counties, said Gaby Rodriguez, academy representative.

The call for virtual education has increased so much that the school worked with the Arkansas Department of Education to increase its student enrollment cap to 4,500 this school year so the academy could prepare for future enrollment increases, she said.

Meeting student needs as an online academy was simply a matter of increasing staff, she said, adding the pandemic didn’t pose the same challenges for Connections Academy as it may have for schools that traditionally offer in-person education.

“We are specifically dedicated to online learning, so that makes us very unique,” Stephens said. “The only difference that we have really experienced over the last year was that we did have to put a hold on our in-person field trip opportunities.”

Explore options

Virtual learning information for some of Northwest Arkansas’ largest districts is available at:

• Bentonville: https://www.bentonvillek12.org/virtualschool

• Fayetteville: https://fva.fayar.net/

• Fort Smith: https://sites.google.com/fortsmithschools.org/fsvirtual/home

• Rogers: https://www.rogersschools.net/virtual

• Springdale: https://central.sdale.org/page/virtual-school

• Arkansas Connections Academy: https://learn.connectionsacademy.com/arkansas/?ao=2

Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette

Mary Jordan can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAMaryJ.

“We were in the process of starting a virtual charter school prior to the pandemic, and the pandemic definitely sped up efforts to get that application process going.”

— Tiffany Bone, assistant superintendent, Fort Smith School District

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