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The Pandemic Might Be Over Next Year, But Online School Will Continue

Asian boy student video conference e-learning with teacher and classmates on computer in living room at home.
Many students have struggled with online learning throughout the pandemic, but some Utah schools are still working to expand and improve their options.

The Jordan School District is emerging from the pandemic with three new schools — all of them online. Beginning next year, the district is launching an online elementary, middle and high school.

Spencer Campbell, a former teacher and principal of the Kelsey Peak Virtual Middle School, said the new options have been in the works for a while — the district already had an online high school option for several years — but the pandemic has sped up the process.

“The district realized that there are parents and students and teachers that are thriving in this environment,” Campbell said. “And we want to give them the opportunity to learn and grow in the place that best fits them and their families needs.”

The Benefits of Online

Many districts, teachers and students have struggled with online classes throughout the pandemic, but the Jordan District is hopeful its new online schools will be on par with traditional ones. Many of the new teachers are trained specifically in teaching online. They also won’t be designing classes in a panic, like many had to when schools first closed last March.

Campbell said the new options give many parents and students the flexibility they’ve been requesting for years. Students who enroll can attend classes completely online — tuning into classes live or watch recordings on their own time — or take a combination of online or in-person classes.

Fully online students will also have access to a school building to meet with teachers face-to-face or if they need a quiet place to work.

The idea is to help students to progress at their own pace, whether they are advancing through lessons faster than their peers or need to spend more time on certain areas.

“Students on the lower end will get more support because the teacher is not necessarily spending as much time teaching the content,” Campbell said. “Historically, a teacher would be teaching six periods a day. If [online] kids are enrolled in one class, that teacher may teach two or three classes a day. And that opens up the rest of the time to have appointments for parents, appointments to work one on one with a student.”

A New Set of Challenges

Launching the new schools does complicate operations for the district, but it won’t necessarily cost the school more, said superintendent Anthony Godfrey. As students enroll, the funding they would normally receive from the state follows them to the school they choose, which in the case of the online option pays for the new staff, teachers and equipment.

It’s not clear how many of the district’s 56,000 students will register for the new schools, he said. But each new school will have its own staff and teaching force, starting with a principal at each school, 12 high school teachers, eight at the middle school and seven for the elementary.

“We talked with principals about what a minimal faculty would look like, regardless of the number of students that we started with,” Godfrey said. “If only a very small fraction of those who are learning online right now choose to continue to do so, we'll have large schools at all three levels. But it's difficult to tell.”

Existing trends suggest the online-only population will continue to grow. Godfrey said the district has offered a virtual high school option for several years through Utah Students Connect, a partnership between seven districts in the state, and student enrollment has grown by about 20% each year.

And now that every district in the state had to create virtual options for students last year when the pandemic hit, many of those options are likely to continue. A survey of districts from the Utah school board found the kind of “anytime, anywhere learning” schools developed in response to the pandemic were among the innovations most likely to continue in years to come, along with increased communication with parents, shifts in school schedules and more sanitization.

Expanding online options may come with a new set of challenges for schools, Campbell said, but they’ll be a useful tool in helping schools adapt to students' needs.

“When we had an older generation of teachers go from paper and books to digital, there was a little bit of a challenge,” he said. “But now if you ask anybody to go back, they'd say, ‘No, there's no way I'd go back.’ So not to say that people won’t have a brick and mortar option after this, I think it's just an additional option for the families that want it.”

Corrected: February 13, 2021 at 12:58 PM MST
A previous version of this story misnamed the virtual middle school.
Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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