As a school year unlike any other unfolds this fall, most Oregon students have no choice but to start the year online.
But thousands of families are deciding to stay online for the whole school year, even if it’s safe to return to school in-person again. It’s one sign that online education programs launched during the pandemic could last after it’s over, providing more flexibility and options for students to learn.
Some districts are starting programs from scratch. Others expanded existing ones. Either way, from Baker City to Hillsboro, educators say they’re bowled over at how many students and parents are hungry for that option this year.
Leading the way is the second-largest school district in Oregon, Salem-Keizer, which has created an online program called EDGE, which stands for Enhanced Digital and Guided Education.
When the enrollment window for the new option closed in late August, co-principals Christine Bowlby and Artonya Gemmill were surprised by the number of applications: almost 7,400.
“We grew by about 2,800 students over a weekend,” Bowlby said.
As former principals of two traditional elementary schools, Bowlby and Gemmill said they’ve seen how important a brick-and-mortar school can be for a child. But with EDGE, they see an opportunity to provide something different — especially after hearing from parents whose children did well last year after virtual education became their only option.
“They found that when we moved to distance learning in the spring, their children participated,” Bowlby said. “We had teachers who would say the same thing: In the classroom, the student never raised their hand, never volunteered to speak, and then all the sudden we went virtual — the students found their voice.”
Online enrollment grows
Positive reviews for online education may be new to public school principals, most of whom heard widespread complaints about the failings and frustrations of distance learning this spring. But enthusiasm for the virtual learning model among a segment of families is familiar to online public schools that operated for years before the pandemic, primarily Oregon’s virtual charter schools.
Oregon’s largest school is Oregon Charter Academy, a virtual charter school long known as Oregon Connections Academy. It’s based in the Santiam Canyon School District but draws students from all over the state.
It’s grown by more than 1,000 students this school year, especially in the lower grades, and could have grown more had the state not limited how many students can depart from a district’s own schools.
That’s a trend several of the state’s other online charter schools are reporting, too.
“Our elementary program has grown over 300% this year,” said David Gray, executive director of Gresham-based Metro East Web Academy, which had 522 students a year ago.
Gray said recommendations from parents, students and school counselors helped increase
In Eastern Oregon, Baker Web Academy is seeing growth too. Last year, it enrolled 100 to 200 students per grade in kindergarten through grade 12. It’s seen an increase of almost 600 students this year.
But its operators face some challenges. COVID-19 made it harder for the online schools to do the in-person activities they used to offer, like field trips or home visits.
And while virtual charter schools are seeing huge growth, they’re likely not enrolling all the families interested. Districts are only required to allow 3% of students to leave for online charters. The rule is designed to provide financial stability for districts, which are funded based on student enrollment.
The Oregon Department of Education says 29 districts appear to have reached that cap.
Virtual charter school advocates disagree with the cap and have called on the Oregon Legislature to lift it. School associations, including the teachers union, the school boards association and the school superintendents group, all pushed to keep the cap as is, citing many charter schools' poor math scores and graduation rates as well as financial concerns for districts losing students.
Those caps are likely part of the reason districts like Salem-Keizer are seeing rapid growth in their new online programs.
Districts create their own online schools
Families have many reasons for enrolling in district-run online-only programs. The desire for consistency all school year is a big one.
Salem parent Taryn Anderson enrolled two of her three kids in the EDGE program with that in mind.
“I have a feeling that school won’t be opening when we all think it will be, and I’d rather not have them sitting around waiting and be disappointed,” Anderson said.
Her 8-year old and 7-year-old will start the year with EDGE. Her 13-year old wasn’t up for it.
“She just is dead-set — ‘Oh yes, we’re going back to school, and I’m going to see my friends’,” Anderson said.
Anderson hopes EDGE offers more structure for her kids. But she also wants them to have social interaction, and is ready to send them back once it’s safe.
EDGE administrators say there will be “transition points” throughout the year for families who decide to enroll in, or leave, the program.
Online academies like EDGE are popping up all over Oregon, with school districts taking different approaches to offering an online option.
Students who enroll in EDGE remain part of the district and are still considered part of their neighborhood school. High school students will still be able to go to prom and participate in athletics, Gemmill said.
“To have an option like this, where they can still participate, have a teacher they can interact with, they have peers they can interact with, and they’re still connected to their neighborhood school – I know that some families have been very excited and very happy for this option,” Gemmill said.
Keizer parent Lisa Davis said her eighth-grader, Cloey, made the decision to enroll out of concern for her high-risk mother and the grandparents they stay with.
“That just broke my heart,” Davis said.
But Cloey may not stick with the program. Davis said she’s worried about missing her friends. They’ll see what happens at the first “transition point.”
“My only concern would be with Cloey sitting there and focusing,” Davis said.
Unlike in Salem-Keizer, the Beaverton School District has made its online program a separate school, called Flex Online School.
More than 1,300 students have enrolled. Principal Paul Ottum said they range from kindergartners to high school seniors and come from all schools in the district.
“Many families have schedule, location or social-emotional barriers to success that a traditional format can’t overcome,” Ottum said.
Ottum said the school was planning to open to serve students the district has turned away in the past.
“We have had hospitalized students, students who needed courses that didn’t fit a traditional schedule, and students who need to work at a different pace than what a regular school schedule allows.”
Both Salem-Keizer and Beaverton said they were planning this type of program even before COVID-19.
Bowlby said EDGE has more than 200 licensed staff members, but the program is also “sharing” elective teachers with other schools. The hires have been all internal so far, but Bowlby and Gemmill said they may need to hire from outside of the district as well. Beaverton’s Flex school will have more than 40 teachers, made up of current Beaverton teachers plus “a few new external hires,” according to district officials.
Other large Oregon school districts offering completely online programs for this year include Eugene and West Linn-Wilsonville.
A notable exception is Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest district. PPS Chief of Schools Shawn Bird said the district wanted to keep students connected to their home school.
“With the uncertainty of when we might be able to go back, we didn’t want to put people in sort of a box — that if you go to this virtual school, you’ll have to stay there for the semester,” Bird said. “I think the situation has been evolving over time ... and it’s changed.”
The district does have Virtual Scholars, an online credit recovery program for high school students.
Even small districts are starting virtual academies. The InterMountain Education Service District in Eastern Oregon pulled together 18 school districts to form a program that shares resources but keeps students tied to their district.
The program will rely on the students' local brick-and-mortar school for “activities, athletics, all of those wrap-around services, supports, counseling,” InterMountain ESD Director of Teaching and Learning Erin Lair told “Think Out Loud.”
“Everything your district has to provide you — you are still a student in your district.”
Districts pay into the program, and InterMountain ESD provides instruction and support. La Grande’s director of educational programming, Scott Carpenter, said the program is more cost-effective than creating its own online program.
“We are now a community partner in the (InterMountain) family, rather than La Grande being the one pulling in the families from across the 18 districts,” Carpenter said.
Most of these district programs are new this year.
Not Hillsboro Online Academy, which has been operating since 2012.
Hillsboro’s been there
On the corner of Third Avenue and Grant Street in Hillsboro is a site that’s been a hub of education for years. Outside, there’s a playground and a sports field used by families and sports teams in the community.
“It gives it a school feeling,” Harrington said.
While Hillsboro Online Academy offers in-person activities like small group instruction and P.E. class, it’s mostly online.
Harrington said during a normal year, you might see students having class in the school’s 1940′s-era gym or meeting with teachers in a small classroom.
Now, the building sits mostly empty, much like brick-and-mortar schools around the state.
“It’s lonely,” Harrington said, sitting in the school’s empty gymnasium. “We miss our students, we miss our families that would come by - they’re such a part of our school -- and we miss our staff.”
In the past, Harrington said, the school served students with medical needs or home-school families who wanted curriculum support. The school also attracted students for whom a traditional school just wasn’t a fit.
Enrollment has hovered around 200 the last few years.
At her most recent count, Harrington, said it was nearing 1,200 students.
“I told my staff that it’s kind of like going in rapids,” Harrington said. “Hang on, whitewater ahead!”
Harrington reads every application from Hillsboro students seeking to transfer to her school.
“Sometimes they just say ‘COVID concerns,’” Harrington said. “But sometimes they actually write about the particular needs they have, people with compromised immune systems in their home, or they have grandparents in the home, and they just don’t want any chance of someone exposed. The big 'C' is what is making the difference this year.”
With the huge growth in enrollment, Harrington’s school is adjusting quickly, adding staff with help from the district.
Harrington joked about all the staff evaluations she’ll have to do now. But she also recognized that all of the growth has hit the school’s small technology department.
Yet even as the school grows, Harrington said, keeping students connected to their teachers will remain her top priority.
“We’ve heard from our students, sometimes they feel closer to their teachers in an online environment than they do in a comprehensive building,” Harrington said. “Not always, but we’ve heard this, because of this ability to be one-on-one with a teacher.”
For districts just starting with online programs, Harrington has some advice.
Don’t expect things to be perfect. Offer “in-depth, differentiated” orientations for students and parents throughout the year. Harrington said she learned that the hard way.
“We came into it thinking, ‘Well, digital natives, hey these kids are going to know how to use technology,’” Harrington said. “Uh, no. They’re great at their thumbs or they’re great at Instagram ... but using that piece of technology to go to school — that was a whole new ballgame.”
And one more thing: Schools need to include parents and guardians every step of the way, so they can be involved in their students' education.
Harrington and her staff have been working on building up those relationships.
“You can just tell they’re struggling and they’re hurting, and they’re so concerned for their little babies,” Harrington said.
“Especially these families, it’s their first time in kindergarten ... and it’s like, ‘OK, it’s going to be all right, we’ll take care of them, but you have them at home — so it’s OK’.”
Betsy Hammond of The Oregonian/Oregonlive edited this story for print.
This story is part of a collaborative by The Oregonian/OregonLive, OPB, Salem Reporter, The Bulletin and the Ontario Argus Observer to bring Oregonians comprehensive coverage of the state’s students and public schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.