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The Viability of Virtual School

12 Feb 2022 12:15 PM | Shane Asselstine (Administrator)

Author: Kristi Oda | O'ahu Island Educator & HSTE Board Member

Tech Center - George Couros Quotes.. | Facebook

In the spring of 2020, a time that seems so long ago, educators were thrust into global pandemic and resistance spread like wildfire. We hoped all would be ‘just fine’ when returning from spring break. What seemed to be a promise of a return to normalcy after the extended lockdown turned into after the summer, then after first-quarter…after winter break…after the delta variant… after omicron, and so on. To most,  the adjustments came nauseatingly  fast, pivoting as information and procedures changed daily. The overwhelming concern for family, colleagues, and student well-being burned in our minds while we continuously sampled the offerings of the distance learning buffet. However, supportive relationships, greater networks, and successful online instructional experiences made the difference between disagreeable and palatable.

In tune with the needs across the state, the Hawaii Society of Technology in Education and the partnerships of Hawaii State Department of Education Leadership Institute quickly scrambled to engage and empower teachers who called for timely, peer-to-peer instructional support. Nurturing connections through the rapid transition helped stressed staff move forward with purpose, wrapping it with love for students. Together, so many stepped up or stepped back to empower many educators emerging as digital designers acquiring a mindset to innovate, share, ask questions, stretch and adapt. It was not a perfect shift, but with a marked improvement, teachers took back rightful ownership of the instructional strategy and pacing decisions to serve the students in front of them. It was less “follow the leader” and more “rise up” to do the necessary teamwork and growth, driven by a deeper understanding of the value to support our families and school communities.

Yes to Online Learning?

On the cusp of a new season in which we are called to live our lives with a virus mitigated by vaccine doses and masking, denial has been extinguished. We are taking concrete steps of acceptance, soberly considering the possibility of expanding public Virtual School.  We require an investment beyond the temporary distance learning options via support of bills such as SB 3094. We are not talking about the same hasty remote learning rollout experienced or a haven for gamers to play without restraint, but a thoughtful space where students choose their differentiated courses from an array of online options offering transformative experiences and a plethora of tools for collaboration.  A space where students can engage with students/teachers from communities outside of their immediate reach. One that offers the same possibilities to those in rural or small schools such as the Kaiapuni program. What if we can design online learning that can adequately serve the medically fragile in time of need, differentiate across the ocean and sharpen students whose career pathway requires more significant online expertise? There are simply students who thrive in an online environment. How can we go beyond considering and move to effectively organizing and improving a permanent Virtual School for an even more robust system? With this upcoming generation having immense access to frequent online communication, there is no stopping them via Discord or FaceTime and no denying how learning and cementing solid relationships go hand in hand, even when not face to face. 

Losing with Virtual Schools? 

The opposition may contend that although virtual school is possible, much will be lost further down the road if public schools offer this route. Virtual schools are often thought to lean away from a humanistic society, where youth are struggling between a paradox of a vast unknown or contained within a stifled, pre-programmed slot. A virtual school can be an illusion of safety between the abyss and a sheltered bubble. Youth need love and experiences of a communal classroom to belong to and thrive away from their home environment and I wonder, can the online one sustain them? As many of us moved online to work, we saw our limitations in isolation and strained connections. The fundamental in-person school experience in our own childhood development is our bias. To give up that security can propel us into a future of unintended consequences, realizing fears of an unbridled boon for technology and a bust for taxpayers. Does Hawaii need to ground our vulnerable and precious youth community in an inclusive space where we learn how to connect, care for and share life with our fellow humans of diverse backgrounds? Would we be investing in an insular bubble that keeps us hypothetically safe from the others riddled with imagined or real contaminants? If masks prevent spread and Hawaii already has the mask mandate, then are we ever going to be safer than this? When will we ever feel safe enough again? Is it when we are back to the elusive pre-pandemic 2019? The risk of negative consequences of not attending in-person school as a child is different for each of us, yet as we embrace our 2022 reality, we are called to make these decisions about our responsibility for future generations. 

Technology Moves Us Forward

As a State Office Teacher, I have seen it is possible to create communities of solutionaries across schools, complexes, and islands with the click of a video conferencing button. And yet, as an elementary school parent, I want my only child to be learning in-person with other children, in front of another human being who can pick up the nuances and interactions that give exponential clues to what is genuinely going with a whole child. I imagine what my life would be like if I didn’t go to brick-and-mortar school and how that would have affected my social-emotional development. It propels me to advocate for a world where we would feel safe to resume all in-person interactions and yet leverage technology and time to prompt equitable and pro-social learning environments. I don’t want children using Chromebooks simply for i-ready assessments. I want them to use technology collaboratively in constructive and meaningful ways that advances their thinking and skills. Schools need to be and can be the space for this learning to happen when open to the new 2022 world we live in. Therefore, solutions must be discussed in depth and carefully selected in a way that brings us together, facing new challenges with the strength of our diverse talents we are developing as we endure the hardships of the pandemic. 

What do you think? Are virtual schools the way to go? Why or why not?

Comment here or Tweet your ideas @kristioda

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