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Student demand is pushing some Utah districts to grow, not shrink, their online schools

iStock - student learning online
Eduard Figueres
Getty Images/iStockphoto
The increasing prevalence of virtual classes is helping drive new approaches to teaching and measuring what students are learning, said Utah Online School director Laura Belnap.

The Canyons School District is the latest in Utah to expand its online options for students. It follows others, like Jordan and Salt Lake City, which made some of the virtual offerings created during the pandemic permanent.

Canyons opened a new K-8 online school for the first time in 2021 to complement its 11-year-old online high school. This fall, it will open up enrollment to any student in the state, such as in rural areas that may not have certain specialized courses or a local online option.

“Our students really want to learn,” said Canyons Online Principal Michelle Shimmin. “It's just sometimes tapping into that style that works the best for them. And online learning provides a lot of different avenues for a student to explore.”

About 5,500 students were enrolled in the Canyons District's online program last school year, Shimmin said, along with a waiting list of about 70 students. As the program opens to students across the state and the district lifts its enrollment cap, she expects attendance to grow, which may require hiring additional teachers.

Online options in Utah have been available since the early 2000s. Utah Online School, which is part of the Washington County School District, was one of the first. It launched in 2004 with just six students graduating that first year, according to director Laura Belnap. But enrollment, both of full-time students and others taking just a course or two, has nearly doubled every year since.

Overall headcounts can be less straightforward than in traditional schools because not all students are enrolled full-time, Belnap said. But the flexibility is part of what makes the option appealing.

Online classes can be a better option for students who have jobs or simply like working outside the normal hours of a school day. Some might do their best work between midnight and 4 a.m. There are also students from Utah who are currently living abroad in places like South Korea, Dubai and even on boats sailing around the world with their families, while still attending school online, Belnap said.

The increasing prevalence of virtual classes is helping drive new approaches to teaching and measuring what students are learning, Belnap said. Students at Utah Online School don’t take quizzes, for example. It’s too easy for them to simply look up the answers. Instead, teachers assign projects. Students have written songs about photosynthesis or built robots, Belnap said.

“Traditional school is run by bells,” she said. “Time is the constant and learning is the variable. In online learning, learning is the constant. Time is the variable.”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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