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Education

Olathe Launches A Virtual School, But Students Will Have Fewer Choices

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KCUR file photo
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During the pandemic, many classes were taught synchronously, meaning students and teachers were logged in at the same time. Students who choose online learning at a Kansas virtual school next year will be expected to work more independently.

The rules are different for virtual school instruction outside a pandemic. That means students who choose online next year won't be Zooming into a class being taught at their neighborhood school.

The school year that just ended was tough on students who weren’t used to learning online. Many were eager to be with classmates and teachers again, but not all students learn best at school.

That’s what Olathe East student Miya Fletcher discovered this school year. Because Miya’s mom is a nurse, her whole family had to take extra COVID-19 precautions. As a result, Miya spent her junior year learning from her bedroom — and she was surprised by how much she liked the pace of online learning.

“After all my classes are done, I have the rest of the day to focus on myself or other schoolwork,” Miya said.

Staying on top of their classes and assignments was a struggle for many students, but not for Miya. She developed a system that worked for her.

“I always write down in a journal or in a calendar what I’m going to do, and I make sure I get it done,” she said.

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Miya Fletcher
Miya Fletcher just finished her junior year remotely at Olathe East. Although she liked the pace of online school, she's headed back to her home high school for her senior year.

Miya’s organizational skills helped her excel, even in her most difficult class, AP Biology. She liked the flexibility of longer due dates and being able to work independently, so much so she considered enrolling in the new Olathe Virtual School.

But it would have meant giving up her senior fashion design classes, so she’s headed back to Olathe East.

More virtual options

Across Kansas, more and more virtual schools are opening. There will be 101 next year. That’s nine more than there were during the pandemic.

But the number of kids enrolled in them remains small — only about 3% of Kansas students. There’s a reason for that, according to state education officials.

“Virtual is not a good option for most kids,” said Brad Neuenswander with the Kansas State Department of Education.

Neuenswander says to do well in online school, students need to have what educators call “21st-century employability skills.” These are soft skills like time management and self-regulation that will help them get jobs someday. Except a lot of young people are still learning these skills. And they don’t have the same support at home as they do at school.

Neuenswander said that doesn’t mean Kansas schools shouldn’t offer online classes.

“If I ask a group of parents and educators to design the best education system, I don’t think they would design what we had before the pandemic,” he said.

Teachers, too

A few Kansas teachers are getting that chance. Peter Mishler spent last year teaching English to students from all five Olathe high schools.

He says it was easy to get to know his students, many of whom he hadn’t met before.

“It’s all chatting, chatting that’s not just like, ‘Hey, let me know if you have questions about this assignment,’” Mishler said. ‘It's like, ‘How are you doing, what's going on with you? What about this thing you mentioned to me a week ago?’”

Mishler says students need to feel that connection with their teachers, especially in an online classroom. He liked teaching online so much that he’s moving from Olathe West to the district’s K-12 virtual school this fall.

“While the learning may be asynchronous, the social and emotional support absolutely has to be there, even when the Zoom button shuts off,” Mishler said.

Most of Mishler’s students, though, are going back to their home high schools. They’re rising seniors who don’t want to miss out on a normal school year. Olathe isn’t offering most honors classes or electives online, either.

That’s a big change from this past year, when Kansas schools had more flexibility in how they delivered online education because of the pandemic.

Changes in remote learning

Next year, though, remote learning will look different. Non-pandemic virtual school instruction in Kansas is asynchronous. That means students who choose online won’t be Zooming into a class being taught at the school down the street. Instead, they’ll be expected to work more independently.

It comes down to funding. Kansas pays more for kids who are physically in schools than it does virtual students.

So neighboring Shawnee Mission isn’t starting a virtual school. Blue Valley is partnering with Greenbush Virtual Academy, one of the state’s service centers for online learning, but students who opt in won’t be taught by local teachers next year.

Some families need that flexibility, though, said Olathe Superintendent Brent Yeager.

“Some of our kids who maybe have school anxiety, those kinds of things. They have the ability to participate. It’s at their time, their pace,” he said.

It’s also an option for families with high-risk individuals who still need to take COVID-19 precautions, Yeager said. There isn’t a vaccine for young children yet.

“So if there was a student whose family feels like they need to be in our virtual program, there’s a mechanism to get from a brick and mortar school, even during the year,” he said.

About 300 students have enrolled in the Olathe Virtual School for 2021-22, some of whom previously attended other districts’ online programs. Now they’re back in their home district — and so are the dollars to educate them.

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