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Virtual learning, first a crisis response to the pandemic, is in St. Louis to stay

Virtual learning, first a crisis response to the pandemic, is in St. Louis to stay

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One year after schools switched to virtual learning in an emergency, some students and teachers have found they prefer it to the classroom. School districts around the St. Louis region are now making plans for permanent virtual classes regardless of the status of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m very grateful for virtual. It brought my daughter back to life,” said Bianca Moore, whose daughter Sparkle Thomas, 13, attends Hoech Middle School in the Ritenour School District.

Much attention has been drawn to the downsides of virtual learning, from lower grades to poor engagement and attendance. Billions of dollars in federal aid will be directed to counteract learning loss during the pandemic. Students with special needs, in particular, report difficulties in getting required services.

But for a significant percentage of families and teachers, virtual learning has been surprisingly successful. Nationwide, 29% of parents said they were leaning toward virtual school next year, according to a recent NPR/Ipsos poll.

Larger districts in the region, including Rockwood, Parkway, Wentzville and St. Louis Public Schools, have said they will continue to provide virtual learning this fall and beyond. Smaller but still sizeable districts like Ritenour and Mehlville are also embracing and extending their digital offerings.

“Families are telling us that a number of their students just learn better with this virtual approach,” said Ritenour Superintendent Chris Kilbride.

Keeping the option beyond the pandemic, he said, will prevent students from leaving for the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program overseen by the state.

“We realized even before the pandemic we needed to compete … in traditional public school districts, we have the capacity to innovate,” Kilbride said.

Currently, more than 1,800 students attend Ritenour Virtual Academy, or about one-third of the total student population. Next year, enrollment is expected to land between 400 and 500 students, about the size of an elementary school.

Sparkle will start ninth grade at Ritenour High School online, and plans to try out for volleyball and track. Attending class from home for the last year has removed the social pressures and awkwardness of middle school.

Sparkle used to struggle with anxiety over taking tests and was too nervous to raise her hand in class. She was bullied in school and feared the daily bus rides.

Studying in her bedroom, the kitchen or the living room with family members who are always home to support her has helped Sparkle gain focus and confidence, her mother said. She’s gone from Cs and Ds to As and Bs.

“I even catch the kid doing homework on Saturdays, and she never did that before,” Moore said. “I got an email from one of her teachers who told me they wish they had more students like her.”

Some teachers have also found they prefer working virtually. Lindsey Clements, a first grade teacher at Marvin Elementary in Ritenour, said her students feel more empowered and in charge of their education.

With every assignment, they make and upload videos, design costumes and use props from around the house. They can move ahead or slow down depending on their needs.

“Certain independent kids are completely thriving,” Clements said. “I’ve seen kids more proud of themselves this year than ever. They know that they’ve done it all on their own.”

The connection she’s built with her students through a screen is stronger than face-to-face, she said.

“We are seeing pets and siblings and parents every single day,” she said. “I always do dance parties with my kids when we’re waiting for everybody to come back, and there’s Grandma dancing with us.”

Leaders in the Mehlville School District had also considered expanding online options before the pandemic, and have decided to make Mehlville @ Home a permanent option.

About 350 families in the district, including 130 students from Mehlville and Oakville high schools, have indicated they will choose virtual next school year. Two teachers will be dedicated to online students in each grade.

April Dzubic chose for her kids to continue in Mehlville @ Home this semester after finding virtual learning to be family-friendly.

“I’ve seen all the blessings in it,” Dzubic said. “Seeing how excited they are, how engaged, how smart they are, I feel like I’m a part of the classroom now.”

Her daughter’s second grade teacher Stephanie Coleman agreed that virtual school is more tight-knit.

“When they’re in the comfort of their own home, you see a very different side of them,” Coleman said. “We have breakfast together, we’re all very comfortable, we’re a family.”

Students are able to get more done during the school day, lessening the need for homework. There are no transitions from one class to the next, no lines for the bathroom, no waiting for everyone to get their lunch in the cafeteria, she said. Fidgety kids get more breaks and opportunities for fresh air or a snack.

Coleman said this is the happiest she’s been professionally in 17 years, because of the flexibility and creativity that virtual teaching requires. On a recent day, her class worked on building cars and inclines. For Valentine’s Day, they wrote and mailed letters instead of exchanging cards in class.

“I really try to get kids to work independently. They are very experiential, project-based — all at their own level, their own pace,” Coleman said.

While schools in general have reported lower grades and poor attendance this year, Coleman said her students are all reading on grade level, which is rare.

“We never could have gotten this far in a building this year.”

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