TOPEKA, Kan. – More than 10% of students in Topeka Unified School District 501 have decided against attending classes in person in the fall, opting to sign up for full-time online learning.
Having only recently announced its plan for a return to school on Sept. 8, the district has seen more than 1,500 of its 13,200 students commit to taking classes remotely, at least for the first quarter.
Schools across the state were forced into virtual learning last March at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instruction was hastily converted to distance format, with mixed results. Teachers missed working in person with the students, students struggled to engage with the material and parents were forced to become tutors.
But with COVID-19 numbers on the rise and concern that the pandemic will linger on, many families are now choosing to continue on the virtual learning track.
USD 501 superintendent Tiffany Anderson said families have received phone calls from district staff to inform them of their options for the fall. They are encouraged to consider not just health concerns but also how well online learning works for their student, the importance of socialization and other factors.
“It’s been really interesting learning the different reasons for the choices families are making,” Anderson said. “I would encourage families to really look at not only the academic opportunity and how students learn, but to look at how their children will develop those social-emotional skills in whatever platform they choose.
“We trust that families can make the best decision for their children.”
Anderson said she is proud of the innovative methods teachers have prepared for virtual learning. She said the high number of online students isn’t surprising and shouldn’t be viewed as negative.
“I’m not concerned at this time, because I think we are at a stage in the pandemic that many have fears,” Anderson said. “We want to honor (families’) wishes for their child. But long term, I want to make sure that families are really looking at all aspects of teaching and learning, and making sure that their child is in the right model for them.”
Aaron Kipp, general director of assessment and demographics for USD 501, said fewer students in school buildings will have a simple mathematical effect on the spread of the virus.
“We’re just trying to play a probability game here,” Kipp said. “Reducing the number of bodies in the school at one given time will hopefully reduce the probability of an outbreak. That’s the new reality. We have to adapt.”
The district recently announced its plan to begin the school year in phases. Kipp said all USD 501 students will take classes online to begin the semester, in what the district calls Phase 1.
After a yet-to-be-determined period of time, students in kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade will begin to return to their school buildings, in two split cohorts, for classes two days a week. In a third phase, students in the other grades will begin to return to in-person classes in a similar two-day a week format.
Kipp said input from hundreds of parents was considered in forming the plan for opening school.
But not all students will return to the school buildings. At least 1,500 have chosen to stick with online learning, and the number is still rising, Kipp said. He noted there is no cap to the number of students who would be allowed to choose the distance option.
“We have the technology, and every one of our students has a device, so the only hook is Internet (accessibility),” Kipp said.
He noted that the district is partnering with Cox Communications to provide access at the most affordable rate possible. The district will continue to provide Wi-Fi by other means, such as hotspots on buses.
“We’re going to do everything that we can to break down that barrier,” Kipp said.
Students who choose the distance-learning format will continue to take the same classes as their peers, participating in the classroom activities and interacting with their classmates virtually.
“Our teachers will be doing some innovative models,” Anderson said. “The online-only learning will include virtual field trips and interactive activities. They will teach in really creative ways in classes like choir, physical education and even science where things like dissections can happen online.”
Students are encouraged to make the decision to do online learning by Aug. 12. But Kipp did say that any student who tries the in-person format will be allowed to switch to online at any point.
“We’re really encouraging parents to make an educated choice by Aug. 12, just for our planning purposes,” Kipp said. “That will just help with operational and logistical plans.”
“I would encourage families to really reflect at the end of each quarter, because they can choose a different model at that time if they want to,” Anderson said.
Kipp said distance learning will look much different than it did in the fall. He said the Kansas State Department of Education has asserted strong accountability for student attendance and performance. He said students who don’t perform well will face the same repercussions as they would during a normal school year.
“Keep in mind, there are still attendance requirements from home,” Kipp said. “There are platforms that will log when kids got on. Teachers will monitor class engagement. So it will be different from last spring when the rules weren’t maybe documented or enforced as much. It will be a lot more structured.”
Decisions have yet to be made regarding distance learners’ participation in sports and extracurricular activities, Kipp said.
Kipp acknowledged that some students who opt for distance learning might still be in need of the free or reduced-price lunch. He said plans are being developed to continue to provide the grab-and-go meals that have been available throughout the pandemic.
Anderson said the district will offer online orientation and registration in August to help families learn the software and protocols of online learning, which will include all students at first, and many for a quarter or even longer.