Fords Prairie Elementary

Students eat breakfast in the new lunchroom in September 2019 at Fords Prairie Elementary in Centralia.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools in March, 16-year-old Isadora Garcia from Tacoma didn't miss a beat.

As one of a couple thousand students in Washington state enrolled in Washington Connections Academy (WACA), Isadora is no stranger to learning online. She completed the 10th grade virtually and is starting 11th grade this fall.

As students in traditional public schools wondered what came next, "her learning was not disrupted at all," said Jessica Garcia, Isadora's mom.

Now, WACA leaders say they've seen an uptick in interest from families due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

WACA started five years ago as a tuition -- free K -- 12 online public school option available for students throughout Washington. There are dozens of online schools available across the state, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

OSPI staff told The News Tribune on Friday that they're working to gather information to show how many students have transitioned to online schools from traditional public schools.

As school districts across the state work to set up virtual academies for students for fall, some families are exploring options elsewhere.

Increased interest in online schools

WACA anticipates starting with 3,200 students this fall, up from 2,400 last year; an 800-student difference. About 422 are from Pierce County.

"We are expecting more growth than the normal year for us," said Jenn Francis, the executive director of Connections Academy schools in Washington.

WACA employs about 100 staff members and hired 30 this summer to prepare for growth. It's possible WACA will have to cap enrollment, Francis said, but it's not there yet.

"We want to grow responsibly," she said.

The increased enrollment really started showing in June, as the school year ended and districts continued to work on their back-to-school plans, many of which were a combination of remote learning and in-person learning.

This month, that changed when some health departments declared it wasn't safe to bring back students for face-to-face learning. In Pierce County, the health department's recommendations spurred all public school districts in the county to announce they planned to implement remote learning plans unless the recommendations changed.

Prior to COVID-19, families sought out WACA for a variety of reasons. Students might be involved in an acting career or high-level sports and have busy schedules. They might have been bullied in their neighborhood school. In Isadora's case, she was seeking a more flexible but rigorous schedule.

This year, WACA found that many parents were looking for a pre-established, reliable online platform for their kids.

"That's been our increase this summer, is families wanting a program they know is consistent and has structure and going to provide for their child's needs at this time," Francis said.

When COVID-19 started impacting schools, Jessica Garcia said families and friends with kids in traditional public schools started asking her how online school was going. Some of them ended up enrolling in WACA.

But full-time online school isn't right for everyone, she added, and families should do their research.

"There is a level of self-motivation and self-drive that a kid has to have," she admitted. "And if they are not self-driven, this model is going to be difficult. I've had friends whose kids need to have people in the room to hold them accountable."

New virtual academies

At WACA, students are given assignments they must complete at the beginning of each week. Throughout the week, teachers host live lessons, and kids log on synchronously to engage. If they need additional help, teachers are on call to book appointments or put together small support groups.

Parents are more involved in their students' learning at WACA than in traditional public schools, Garcia said. Each evening, she logs on to check that Isadora has completed her assignments.

The work is completed through WACA's learning management system, Connexus.

The platform is similar to what school districts across the state are now standing up.

Tacoma Public Schools invested $650,000 this June in Schoology, a learning management system where teachers can post course content, provide resources and review assignments.

On Friday, the district announced it would be opening Tacoma Online, a school experience open to all students that provides core content courses and elective courses in early August.

"Students have access to their courses online anytime, from anywhere, and can work at their own pace," according to the district's website. "Learning occurs through live and recorded video lessons delivered completely online -- delivered by Tacoma teachers."

Tacoma Online serves kindergarten through 12th-grade learners, with a capped enrollment of 2,000 students -- 1,000 for grades K-5 and 1,000 for grades 6-12. Placement is first come, first served.

Tacoma Online is different from remote learning. Remote learning involves teachers interacting with students partly online and party through other means during the week. Remote learning students also will return to school in a hybrid model, given that the health department allows it, while Tacoma Online students will continue full-time online learning.

Some prepared for online

Some school districts already work with a learning management system, such as the Bethel School District, where all students have an electronic device. Bethel uses an LMS called Canvas.

More than 220 students enrolled in Bethel Acceleration Academy (BAA), a branch of Washington's Open Doors Youth ReEngagement system, are familiar with completing coursework online, according to Jennifer Bethman, assistant superintendent for Bethel secondary schools.

BAA works with people ages 16-21 who have often left traditional school environments but want to earn a diploma in a different way. Students there typically work both online and in-person. BAA celebrated the graduations of 21 Tacoma-area students this summer so far.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has required us -- like all school programs -- to shift to a fully virtual model," BAA executive director Gin Hooks said. "Unlike most schools, however, we and our young learners had already mastered the unique blend of technology and learning needed to succeed, and we are continuing to see our young people succeed."

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(c)2020 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

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