It was nearly three weeks into the school year before Allysa Wesierski, a senior at Bartlett High School, heard from a teacher for one of her online classes.
Widespread problems with the rollout of a new program called ASD Virtual, intended to provide families an at-home school option during the pandemic, left Wesierski almost a month behind in the class.
“It was definitely really stressful,” Wesierski said.
The problems have set hundreds of students up to fail, said Sean Prince, principal at Bartlett High School.
Prince and a few other principals spoke out about the program’s issues during public testimony at an Anchorage School Board meeting in early September.
“We’re in danger of disenfranchising our students as lifelong learners forever. Losing the trust of our community. And it is our fault," Prince told the board.
The problems with ASD Virtual are causing some families to leave the program.
More than 4,000 students were enrolled in ASD Virtual two days before the start of the school year, according to enrollment data presented at an Aug. 18 school board meeting. Three weeks later, nearly 800 had left the program.
Carol Boatman, the district’s director of learning innovation, said in an interview last week that the problem with access to ASD Virtual classes “really was across the board," affecting all grade levels but predominantly high schools.
“When you’re implementing a big program like this, you’re going to have bumps on the road. You just know and realize that," Boatman said. “What’s important is that we’re listening to what those bumps on the road are, and we’re answering them and responding to them and meeting the needs of students, families and teachers.”
The pandemic shut down classrooms across Alaska in March, and the Anchorage School District’s regular classes, which began Aug. 20, are currently online only. The district last week announced a plan to bring kids back to classrooms in phases starting next quarter.
ASD Virtual is an option for families who do not want to risk exposure to the coronavirus as the school district’s plans for in-person classes shift, according to Superintendent Deena Bishop.
It is essentially a home school program that keeps students enrolled in their neighborhood school and is offered for elementary school through high school. Anchorage teachers are supposed to provide support to students in the program, though parents have the primary education responsibility, especially for younger students.
But when the program launched, some enrolled students did not have access to classes for weeks.
ASD Virtual teachers were “as poorly informed as parents and students” Kaci Stephens, curriculum principal at Bartlett, wrote in testimony to the board. Counselors and principals also knew little, according to students and principals interviewed by the Daily News.
Wesierski began the year without knowing who her teacher was, with no communication from the district about the issue, she said.
She spent the next two weeks “trying to contact everybody and anybody that could possibly know anything,” she said.
About 10% of Bartlett students are now at risk of failing ASD Virtual classes “through no fault of their own,” Prince said.
He said many are now dropping out of their Advanced Placement classes offered through ASD Virtual. Students can earn college credit for AP classes.
Boatman said the district will give students an extension to finish coursework during the next quarter.
Wesierski said she appreciates the extra time. But she will also be working on three new classes, two of them AP, and she’s also in the midst of college applications, she said.
Some of the program’s access issues were due to its curriculum vendors, Calvert Learning, Apex and eDynamics, Boatman said.
Other problems resulted from a sudden influx of students right before the school year began. Enrollment in ASD Virtual jumped from 400 to 4,000 in about a week, she said.
That meant that the district needed to redistribute teachers quickly, Boatman said.
“It just caused so much disruption,” Bishop said.
Staffing issues caused by the virtual school trickled down to other programs, resulting in overcrowding in classes in some of the district’s poorer schools.
Schools with a stronger socioeconomic base — and parents with more time to stay home and teach — tended to have more families opt in to the new virtual program or a home-school option, Bishop said.
That meant smaller class sizes for students in the richer neighborhood schools, and more students with fewer teachers in others. It is a problem the district did not anticipate in its staffing plan, Bishop said.
Several educators interviewed by the Daily News said that some of the issues could have been avoided if the district had expanded its former, smaller virtual school called the iSchool, instead of launching an entirely new program.
And while the district had launched its new program with an assurance that students would receive support from a district teacher, some classes are being taught by out-of-state teachers.
The curriculum vendor provides the out-of-state teachers when the district does not have a teacher available or one with the expertise for the course, Boatman said.
Boatman said she did not know how many out-of-state teachers were being used, which courses they were being used for or how much it is costing the district.
Anchorage Education Association president Corey Aist said that the issues have been frustrating but the district is listening to concerns of educators and adapting to a difficult situation "on the fly.”
Still, for many families, the program is working, Bishop said.
Jeff Mayfield and his fourth-grade son, Lucas, have been working through the new ASD Virtual elementary curriculum.
Mayfield’s wife is a doctor. The family also helps care for an elderly at-risk relative. They worry about Lucas bringing COVID-19 to school or picking it up there, he said.
The ASD Virtual lessons are often challenging and engaging, Mayfield said. Lucas said school at home is going “pretty well.”
Mayfield and Lucas also could not immediately access the classes, but after two days and a few phone calls, the problems were sorted out, he said. It was frustrating, communication from the district hasn’t been great, and some things like new testing requirements have unexpectedly changed, he said.
Still, Mayfield is happy for a program that keeps Lucas learning at home.
“I feel like the best thing we can do is give everybody grace,” Mayfield said. “I can’t say that I’m wholly happy with everything the school district has done. However, they’re between a rock and a hard place as well.”