Online school during COVID-19: It’s about student learning

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COVID-19 has disrupted our lives. It has more than disrupted the public and private education system in Alaska and the rest of the world. Understandably, there has been confusion, concern and frustration associated with those impacts.

Regretfully, the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development's announcement of the Alaska Statewide Virtual School added to that confusion and frustration. As Alaska’s Education Commissioner, my intent to provide as many high-quality content options as quickly as possible should not have prevented me from demonstrating appropriate cooperation and communication. It is my hope to clarify the rationale in providing additional resources.

The purpose of the Alaska Statewide Virtual School is to provide optional content to educators and students to support their adaptation to distance delivery of education. It will not change a student's enrollment status in their local school or state funding received by their district. Enrolling in a subject through the virtual school is free and does not include any cost to a family or a school district.

For example, I imagine the overwhelming challenges for our teachers managing the transition to distance delivery. With district permission, teachers can use content from the virtual school for part of their students’ coursework. That content includes the opportunity to collaborate, or even team teach, with a fellow public school educator currently working for the Florida Department of Education.

A family being served by a local school teacher in Alaska that may desire additional content for their children, whether that be additional science content or an extra history class, could utilize coursework from the virtual school free of charge. This may be helpful, especially for families with multiple students, who desire additional content to supplement the day's activities that includes guidance and support from a certified teacher, without adding additional workload to their local classroom teacher.

Families and educators have been presented with many online options for students with Internet connectivity. Many, if not most of those options, are through private vendors. The collaboration between the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and the Florida Department of Education is based on the public school system, with public school teachers, governed by a State Board of Education. To learn more about the Global Florida Virtual School, visit www.flvs.net/about/flvs.

Alaska has a long history of partnering with other states. School districts utilize resources from many states, including Florida, North Dakota, Nebraska and Utah. Private vendors are used to providing instruction in traditional public and homeschool programs throughout the state. Though Alaska has used resources from other states since our earliest days as a public education system, we made them our own to meet the unique aspects of learning in Alaska.

This process is also true for the Alaska Statewide Virtual School. Our collaboration with the Florida Department of Education includes the opportunity to train 54 teachers (theoretically one from each district) to deliver content and engage students through best practices for online teaching and remote learning. In the fall, our desire is to be ready for online instruction delivered by Alaska teachers, provided through Alaska’s virtual school platform. Though we all hope that students are able to return to local schools in August, we would be irresponsible not to prepare for possible statewide or regional closures during the next school year. Some communities may determine that it is unsafe for teachers from outside to return to their local schools until a vaccine has been developed for COVID-19 due to the risk of spreading the virus. Adding remote delivery of instruction and student support makes sense, given the uncertainties that confront us.

In addition to numerous online resources available at www.aklearns.org, the department has partnered with Apple and recently purchased 500 iPads that will be preloaded with academic content and activities. These devices will be distributed to kindergarten through third grade students in targeted communities that may not have internet or where there is no locally based teacher due to travel restrictions associated with COVID-19. These young learners need guided instruction and practice, particularly in early literacy, to remain on track for proficiency by the end of third grade. Through phone calls and traditional mail, teachers can support students using iPads through the rest of the school year, and student practice can continue at home throughout the summer to reduce gaps in learning.

This massive transition to distance delivery is a huge lift for our teachers. Their creativity and hard work are inspiring. The virtual school and the iPad project serve as supplemental resources for Alaska’s teachers and families, and along with many other online and offline options, are meant to keep students moving forward in their learning and prevent regression due to the impact of this global pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many routines in our lives, but it has not diminished our students’ need and ability to learn. I hope by offering a variety of optional resources for educators and students, we can continue to fulfill our mission of an excellent education for every student every day, even during a pandemic.

Michael Johnson began his service as Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development on July 1, 2016.

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