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Online learning at home isn’t going away next school year

Sierra Spydell, a second-grader at Torrey Pines Elementary School in La Jolla, participates in distance learning at home.
Sierra Spydell, a second-grader at Torrey Pines Elementary School in La Jolla, participates in distance learning at home. Sierra’s family plans to keep her in online learning next school year, even though her school is open for in-person learning, because she enjoys learning virtually and has been doing well in school, says her mother, Monica Spydell.
(Monica Spydell)

Monica Spydell never would have thought to enroll her second-grade daughter in online classes before the COVID-19 pandemic.

But after schools closed and forced her family and others into distance learning, Spydell was surprised to see Sierra, who attends Torrey Pines Elementary School in La Jolla, thriving in online learning. The talkative Sierra was speaking up frequently in Zoom classes and still had a love for learning, even though it was online, her mother said.

Now Spydell plans to keep Sierra in online learning next school year, even though the San Diego Unified School District intends to offer full-time, in-person learning at all its schools in the fall. Spydell says she worries about Sierra’s health if she goes back to school; she has gotten pneumonia twice.

“If there’s an option for us to not have to worry about it, we’d rather just take that for now,” Spydell said. “In the grand scheme of her life, spending a year and a half home with us and having a good time doing it ... it’s the easier choice.”

While state leaders are expecting all schools to be fully open for in-person learning by the start of the school year, that doesn’t mean all students will return to campuses.

Inspired by the pandemic, many school districts are creating permanent, online-only or independent study programs. School leaders said they want to offer more flexible learning options for students who, for example, may not want the social pressures of a traditional school environment or may prefer to work independently.

School officials also want to provide an option for families like Spydell’s, who are still unsure about sending their children back to school. Some parents wonder if COVID variants will raise local case rates or if COVID vaccines will be available to children younger than 12 by then.

Online school, home school and independent study are education styles that have been championed by a sector of charter schools, which are publicly funded schools run independently of school districts. But those options were rarely used by traditional public schools. The pandemic may be changing that.

San Diego Unified is in talks with its teachers union to create a new virtual academy next school year, which the district promised to provide under a March agreement with the union.

Before the pandemic, the district had only offered an online school for high-schoolers and a K-12 independent study program that involves less direct instruction than an online learning program.

The district’s new virtual academy will extend its online learning option to kindergarten through eighth grade.

A big difference between distance learning and the new virtual academy is that the academy’s teachers will be dedicated solely to online instruction. There will be no more juggling in which teachers try to educate in-person students and online students at the same time, as there is now with hybrid learning. ◆