The pandemic altered education, but Utah is adapting
Earlier this year, schools sent students and teachers home and began distance learning procedures. Most schools embraced technology early on while others took extra time to figure out the best steps. Nevertheless, education plans across the world required a dramatic pivot.
School is currently back in session and reopening has looked different in areas across the state. Masks are required and some districts are operating on a hybrid model that has students alternating days in the classroom, combining in-person learning with online.
Needless to say, the pandemic, coupled with changing education models, has more parents looking at all the options for their students and families.
Virtual learning is surging in popularity
The Utah Virtual Academy opened in 2008 and was gaining traction for years before the pandemic hit. Now, they’ve reached waitlist status. Online learning has become a viable option for students who perform better in a virtual setting and for parents who don’t necessarily want to take the traditional homeschool route or send their kids back to in-person school.
The fully-online, tuition-free, public charter school serves students and teachers across the state. Learning models are changed as needed and teachers engage in continuing education. Business as usual has been the norm for Virtual Academy students through 2020.
“We are very much like a traditional school setting in that we offer live classes,” says Meghan Merideth, head of school. “We have a set routine and schedule times. Where we differ a little is we offer a very targeted base instruction. Also, we did pay special attention to the emotional welfare [of the students] during this time.”
Utah Virtual Academy hosts various extra-curricular clubs, offers student government opportunities, and monthly outings (pre-COVID) where students meet face to face. Parents are also supported through parent-to-parent networking and the academy has three staff members dedicated to supporting parents.
Robyn Edmunds has a third-grader who began Utah Virtual Academy this fall. Her student was attending a charter school in West Valley before the pandemic but Edmunds made the choice to keep her student learning from home.
“The top [reason] so far is that we can be safe in this current environment, we can proceed with school with little to no interruptions,” Edmunds says. “No worry that someone will be exposed or that they will send us home again mid-year or call us back etc. I like that it’s a quiet and focused way to learn. The only con right now is that she won’t have friends to play with. That, in time, can be remedied when the pandemic settles.”
So is homeschooling
Homeschooling has been around for generations and has surged in popularity during the duration of the pandemic. Many home school curriculums are on the market, and depending on the providers’ educational philosophy, the provider can customize their students learning approach and personalize it to the student’s interests. A degree in education is not necessary to teach at home.
As a student of homeschooling his entire elementary and high school education, Chris Holifield, founder of I Am Salt Lake Podcast, feels homeschool has its place, but his step-kids attend a traditional school, and he is still considering things for his toddler. “Kids need kids,” he says.
Holifield’s mother was a teacher before having children and taught in elementary classrooms. She then taught both he and his older brother and now she is teaching her great-grandchildren at home. “As a young kid, it was hard, but I didn’t know anything else,” Holifield says. “My mom was very religious and incorporated religion instead of the actual curriculum, which was fine, I guess.
“When you are reading about Noah’s Ark instead of World Wars, it might have been a little more interesting. As I got older I was afraid of school. My mom never really pushed college but I went to a community college for a little while and I did not know how to interact in those type of settings, I didn’t even know how to do homework. I struggle with it because I don’t feel I learned how to learn properly.”
Holifield credits homeschooling with teaching him how to be resourceful and a bit of an entrepreneur. Looking back, he feels social interaction is one of the most important lessons we learn in our youth, and incorporating that in whatever learning model a family chooses for their children is ideal.
Colleges are helping students succeed despite current conditions
The Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute is a division of the Eccles School of Business and serves the entire campus of the University of Utah. The institute altered its education plans after the pandemic by reducing the number of students in housing, providing extra-curricular programming online, and teaching student leaders to lead virtually. Academic programs have developed hybrid models to meet student needs as well and online learning is always an option for students who would rather participate in that format.
“I really think everyone experienced setbacks and delays during the COVID shutdown, but there is so much learning to be had around what that crisis has exposed in all of us and one thing that has been really remarkable is to the watch the University community rally and put the students at the center for them to get an education, reaching out to each student, making sure they are doing OK and really meeting the students where they are,” says Anne Bastien, director of education for the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.
Students at other institutions throughout the state report the same thing. Katie O’Brien, an online student at Salt Lake Community College says that when she graduated from high school last year, her intention was to take a gap year. After the pandemic hit, she enrolled in online classes, because it helped normalize the transition into college.
“I am glad I decided to dive in again after only missing one semester,” O’Brien said. “Having my friends and peers from high school also using the online format due to the pandemic gave me a sense of normalcy again in a world where nothing seemed normal.”
Great care was taken to ensure students had access to the technology they needed to participate as well as their inquiring about their personal concerns, safety, and overall well-being.
“This [experience] has changed how we can see and access and make ourselves available to students in a new way,” Bastien says. “I have given students my cell phone number; this experience has made us more capable in meeting students where they are, learning about them as individuals to find out where they want to go and how we connect them to the proper resources. I think this is going to be some of the most resilient students to come out the other end. This really is a great time to be at the University.”