Online education options see increased interest as COVID cases rise

By: - August 12, 2021 5:08 pm

Schools will be required to offer 100% in-person classes to students who want them under legislation approved Jan. 28, 2021. (Photo by Getty Images)

As Iowa schools prepare for a third school year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, distance learning options are multiplying and receiving strong support.

Steven Hoff, the head of the Iowa Virtual Academy, said the pandemic has created an influx of registrations to his school, alongside more online options popping up across the country and state.

“I don’t see virtual schools ending anytime soon,” he said. “I only see them increasing. There was a time, back when we were starting, there were only two virtual school options across the entire state, and fast forward 10 years later, there’s somewhere around 15 options for enrollment across the state.”

After the pandemic began, the Sioux City Community School District saw an opportunity to accomplish its long-term goal of opening a fully online education option within its district. 

Superintendent Paul Gausman said the new Virtual Institute for Brighter Education Academy allows for teachers in the district to opt into only virtual learning options and for students to continue to be taught by Iowa teachers.

“In the last week or so, we’ve seen a slight uptick in the number of students who are talking to us about virtual learning and considering the options that are available to them,” he said. “We, in total, are running about 550 students who are going to participate in that program (as of Aug. 11).”

He said the students include kids who open-enrolled into the district to access an online school. The academy joins 10 other public, virtual schools in Iowa. 

School districts offering online options

Alongside fully virtual schools, Iowa school districts are offering distance learning options for K-12 learning, including the Ames Community School District. The district always planned to offer online learning for secondary students, but the initial option for elementary students had low interest, Communication Director Eric Smidt said in an email to Iowa Capital Dispatch. 

After hearing from several families about the need for distance learning for younger students, he said the district reconsidered.

“We have opened the elementary online remote option to families with a severe health condition,” he said. “We will gather numbers and to the extent possible, we will accommodate additional families who have an interest in the online learning program.”

The major difference between this year’s online option and last year’s is that Ames teachers will not be instructing any online classes, Smidt said. Classes for all virtual learning will be taught through Edgenuity, an online curriculum provider.

The Iowa State Education Association is also seeing an increase in school districts offering distance learning, said President Mike Beranek. While online options vary across the state, he said there are more options available to students than ever before., with larger districts taking the lead on online learning. 

Des Moines Public Schools, the biggest district in Iowa, is also planning to use Edgenuity to offer an online elementary school option this year. The school board’s decision to expand online options down to the youngest of students came after parents voiced concerns about having only in-person learning options.

State Sen. Claire Celsi is a Democrat from West Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

State Sen. Claire Celsi, a West Des Moines Democrat and and co-founder of Iowans for Public Education, said she is concerned about the state of Iowa’s public education system as online learning continues to grow within Iowa. 

“With mitigation strategies that are practically non-existent, I’m sure there will be lots of kids that do use these other programs,” she said. “… It takes money away from the existing public schools that serve everyone.”

She said the expansion of online schools could lead to the “hollowing out” of many public schools in the state, leading to the closing and consolidation of districts and longer bus rides for students to get to in-person education options. 

Educators, parents worry about ban on mask mandates

After the Iowa Legislature passed a bill that forbids schools and local governments to create mask mandates, teachers are becoming increasingly concerned about the resurgence of COVID-19 transmission in the state. After traveling around the state, Beranek said he’s hearing concerns from educators about the inability to ensure students’ safety.

“Folks are apprehensive in school districts due to the inability for districts to make decisions,” he said. “Educators are concerned about the lack of local control … Staff and families are concerned about preexisting conditions and they had less apprehension when masks were mandated (in schools).”

Parents voiced concerns about the ban on school mask mandates during a sit-in Wednesday at the Iowa Capitol. Others pleaded with the State Board of Education last week to ask for masks for students. 

Iowa students will begin in-person classes in less than two weeks. 

Higher education facing similar challenges

Faculty and staff members at Iowa’s public universities are currently asking for vaccine and mask mandates at their campuses after the state Board of Regents opted not to enact those requirements.

Earlier this month, hundreds of University of Iowa employees signed and submitted a letter calling for the regents to mandate masks in classrooms and university buildings. The author of the letter, Rachel Marie-Crane Williams from the Department of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies asked the regents to reinstate flexible work arrangements for faculty and several other policies from the 2020-21 academic year. 

The letter said morale is at an all-time low for faculty members, which puts public higher education in Iowa at risk.

“We are at risk of losing faculty, students, and staff who seek opportunities at academic institutions that have mandated vaccines for COVID and can institute mask wearing,” the letter says. “While I recognize that our public universities are subjected to intense political pressures, I also feel that the morality of our academic institutions is at stake. This pandemic has taken a huge toll on productivity, mental health, teaching and learning.”

The University of Iowa is the only Big Ten school that does not have a mask or vaccine mandate. 

A new education reality

While the COVID-19 pandemic affects another school year in the state, ISEA is planning to revamp its COVID-19 tracker that shows which school districts are fighting outbreaks of the virus, Beranek said. 

“The COVID-19 tracker was successful last year and provided information to Iowans and legislators,” he said. “Providing data is crucial.”

He said the tracker is only effective if the Iowa Department of Public Health continues to report accurate numbers on the outbreak as the school year begins.

As online education options expand, Iowa Virtual Academy’s Hoff said he believes they are here to stay because virtual schools offer more consistency than any other option.

“Parents really want a consistent learning option for their students, where their education won’t be disrupted and we can provide that,” he said. “We’ve been doing (online learning) since 2012 and really, the COVID impact hasn’t impacted how we deliver our education to our students.”

Sioux City stocks up on rapid COVID tests

Sioux City’s Gausman said alongside the expansion of online options, Iowans are going to see similar mitigation measures for in-person learning with additional cleaning and asking students to wear masks.

One of the newest developments in the Sioux City district is the purchasing of thousands of rapid tests to ensure students know if they have contracted novel coronavirus, he said.

“If we have somebody in a quarantine situation, and they want to get tested to see if they can get back into the classroom or if we need to determine to stay in the classroom or whatever challenges are, we just wanted that to be another tool in our tool box so we started with the purchase of about 16,000 of these rapid tests,” he said.

School districts are continuing to evolve and ensure that Iowa’s students can thrive in classrooms, he said, but the public needs to have patience as localities look for the best solutions to the pandemic.

“We ask for grace and patients as we continue to navigate these unknown and challenging times,” he said. “… We will get through this together, and we’re just trying our best to listen and learn from one another.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.