School is back in session, but for some families that might look different as Colorado enters a new stage of the pandemic.
On July 3, Gov. Jared Polis’ office celebrated a milestone in Colorado’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic as the state met President Joe Biden’s July 4 deadline for 70% of the state’s population to be inoculated with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
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Still, that announcement came as cases of the COVID-19 Delta variant have exploded in Colorado in recent weeks, becoming the dominant variant of the virus throughout the state. In El Paso County, Delta variant cases have exploded from around 34 in mid-June to 246 as of July 5.
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Persisting concerns over the pandemic, ranging from trouble accessing vaccines to fears over contracting the virus, are among the reasons families want their students to continue learning from home, district officials said.
But for some families, the decision to stay home goes beyond the pandemic, Harrison District 2 spokeswoman Christine O’Brien said, because the remote learning model just works better for them.
That includes students who travel frequently or who use certain learning accommodations, as well as those who juggle jobs and athletics. Families have also cited being able to access their students’ education from anywhere as a reason for wanting to stick to remote learning, because that accessibility allowed students to travel back and forth between family members that were out of town as they needed to. The issue is a prevalent one for districts in and around Colorado Springs. In Colorado Springs District 11, around one in four families said they’d rather stick to online learning if given a choice.
After District 2 officials polled families in January, O’Brien estimated that between 1,000-1,200 families were interested in forgoing in-person learning in favor of online options.
But in several districts in the Pikes Peak region, students that want to stay at home are being funneled into new online schools, like District 2’s Aspire Online Academy, which is opening for the upcoming fall semester.
New multi-district online school to open in Harrison School District 2
“The online academy’s response — our district’s whole response — is that it’s another option in order to support diversity and variety in learning styles,” Aspire Online Academy principal Talya Young said. “So our goal is to provide an opportunity — that is, to have another choice.”
For now, many of these online schools have set up shop in temporary homes, like Aspire Online Academy, which will headquarter elementary school teachers in Centennial Elementary School and junior high teachers in Pikes Peak Elementary.
That’s just a temporary measure for the 2021-2022 school year, Young said. After that, districts have planned for online schools to be housed in brick-and-mortar schools.
In Colorado Springs District 11, that plan for traditional buildings for online schools is a part of the district’s master plan for school facilities, which started before the pandemic.
“We have a certification from the Colorado Department of Education for a multi-district online school, and so we are enrolling students from all over the state — mostly in our region here,” principal Julie Johnson said.
Ashby said the online academies also provide some needed relief to teachers beleaguered by changing learning formats over the past year.
After statewide pandemic mitigation protocols first mandated instructors — many of whom had never taught a class online — to make their courses compatible with virtual tools last spring, Ashby said some teachers were faced with teaching online and in-person classes almost simultaneously after in-person learning policies were eased back to encourage hybrid formats.
“We knew we couldn’t keep with that model. We had to direct students and families to a different type of model where they would have that fully-engaged, full-online teacher in place, rather than having somebody who is trying to teach in person and online,” Ashby said.
Taking into consideration the fatigue and sedentary lifestyle that comes along with online schooling, some schools, like Spark Online, have plans to factor in-person activities into their curriculum and extra-curricular offerings, like spaces for students to make art or experiment in robotics.
For the most part, these in-person activities aren’t mandatory parts of the online schools’ curriculums, but are there for students in the Colorado Springs region that still want hands-on, face-to-face activities in their academic schedules.
District leaders feel the online schools don’t just respond to concerns over the pandemic many families still have, but also provide opportunities for students that require the accessibility that online learning provides, as well as for those just wondering if there’s a better way to finish their K-12 education.
“Regardless whether it’s a pandemic or just the fact that we’ve all learned that we can work and go to school in a variety of different ways now that we’ve been tested with a pandemic, we really want to make sure we provide that opportunity and respond,” O’Brien said.