For more than a year, students across Oregon were holed up in their bedrooms doing school online, isolated from teachers and classmates. Schools reopened at the start of the 2021-2022 school year. Even with required masking, it was the closest to “normal” since before the pandemic disrupted schools across the country. Most kids and parents celebrated the chance to return to classrooms.
But not every student returned to a school building.
Established online schools, including virtual charter schools, saw enrollment jump during the pandemic as families wanted to stay safe during COVID-19. According to the Oregon Department of Education, there are 20 virtual charter schools operating in the state. Those schools now enroll almost 4,000 more students than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the number has decreased from a high in the 2020-2021 school year.
Facing the possibility of losing students and the funding that comes with them, public school leaders responded by opening their own virtual programs. Established and new programs vary in approach, size, and evidence of success, though the virtual charter schools tend to operate with less accountability and oversight.
But students and staff say online schools are a key option for students seeking an alternative to a brick and mortar school. That includes two students in OPB’s Class of 2025 who stayed online and at home this past school year.
Studying in houses only a few miles apart, enrolled in two different online schools, the experiences of the students were not the same.
From mid-March 2020 to April 2021, the majority of students attended school through distance learning at home. Class of 2025 student Austin and his older brother Kyle were doing well. Their mom Amber Clark said the school district built a successful distance learning model during the pandemic.
Students had live classes with teachers and a set schedule throughout the day.
“I was so impressed with how they started it,” said Austin and Kyle’s mom, Amber Clark. “Kids got up and started class just like normal — well, as normal as it could be.”
But in the fall of 2021, things changed. Austin had finished eighth grade at Ron Russell Middle School and was set to start high school as school buildings opened back up to students. Austin and Kyle chose to stay home instead and enroll in a new online program started by the David Douglas School District.
The family expected the new program to be similar to the distance learning model that worked for them.
“I figured it would just stay that way, but it didn’t,” Clark said.
Building a virtual school from scratch
Linda Vancil had planned to step down from her job as an assistant principal at David Douglas High School and retire, before a request came in: could she stay for one more year and lead a new virtual school?
“This is something that’s been a couple of years in the making,” Vancil said, “but COVID kind of helped push it along.”
The David Douglas Online Academy opened in the fall of 2021. Enrollment has fluctuated over the year, landing at 373 students from K-12 at the end of the year.
DDOA’s youngest students have an experience quite similar to comprehensive distance learning of the last two years.
“Every day, kids are expected to log into class and we have a live teacher that is giving instruction and then a lot of asynchronous work time in the afternoon,” Vancil said.
Students in middle and high school are expected to work more independently, when it works for them, so they can balance school with other responsibilities.
“We do have high school kids that got jobs during COVID, and were working full time, and this was a great opportunity for them to still continue to work and finish their schooling,” Vancil said.
Middle and high school students have an opportunity to reach out for one-on-one help from their teachers. But Vancil said getting students to participate has been the biggest challenge for her and her staff.
An anonymous survey in late 2021 received responses from 36% of DDOA’s high school students and found only about one in five said they “feel a part of DDOA’s community.”
Based on feedback over the first year, the school has added virtual meetups for older students and in-person playdates for elementary students. Students are allowed to participate in activities and electives at their home school.
The school is also trying to build a sense of community by holding Zoom assemblies and creating a school mascot: the Pixel.
At a virtual assembly in April, over 100 staff and students showed up online. A slideshow honored students with perfect attendance while a song about attendance played. First graders showed off their art, a group of fourth graders performed the song “What A Wonderful World” in sign language, and a sixth grader performed music she mixed on her computer.
Students, mostly younger, cheered on their classmates. But the school also celebrated its oldest students. By the end of April, 15 seniors had already finished their classes months before the end of the school year. The virtual academy honored them at the assembly, playing “Pomp and Circumstance” as school photos flashed across the screen.
“There’s a lot of different reasons why it does work well for some kids, apart from COVID” said teacher Craig Topolski, who teaches electives at DDOA.
He said the online model offers flexibility and independence for students, and teaches students technological skills in addition to content. The school can also be a cozier alternative for students who may be intimidated by David Douglas High School, the largest in the state.
But it’s not a great fit for everyone.
Online school shows mixed results for Class of 2025 students
When it comes to the ninth grade level assignments, Austin said he has managed the academic shift from middle to high school.
“It’s not really more difficult, because you learn how to do the more difficult work,” he said.
But without structure, Austin struggled at DDOA. He said he tried to stay on a schedule to keep up with school work and not get distracted at home, but it was difficult.
About midway through the school year, he realized he had several missing assignments.
“I would see I had missing work in this class, and no missing work in another one, so I thought, ‘OK, I’ll ignore that one and do this one,’” he recalled. “But really… that missing work’s just building up.”
Austin says there isn’t a lot of opportunity for social interaction with classmates or with teachers. It’s on him to reach out to his teachers, but mom Amber Clark said he hasn’t really done that.
“The teachers are there, and you can reach out to them, but when you’re talking about a 14-year-old, reaching out on their own isn’t exactly very practical,” she said.
And Amber and her husband, Austin’s dad Bruce Clark, aren’t always available to keep Austin on top of things.
“It’s been tough,” Amber said.
“I think the teachers and the students should have to meet in a Google Classroom at least once a week, to see if everybody’s on track. I think it just helps, it makes it real.”
Amber and Bruce have their hands full with a car repair business. Austin and his brother would do school from home, with classroom set ups in each of their bedrooms.
“It does not feel like I’m in school, yeah, it doesn’t,” Austin said. “It feels like a new thing, which makes it very weird.”
The online school sets an expectation that parents be “at-home learning coaches” for their kids — supporting older students like Austin for up to three hours a day.
Vancil said she understands that is not always possible.
“It’s a little bit more difficult than people realize, and me as well, it’s been more challenging to have some kids engaged than I thought it would be,” Vancil said, looking back on her online school’s first year.
A more established virtual school draws students during pandemic
Austin wasn’t the only Class of 2025 student who started high school online. Shelby attended Willamette Connections Academy, one of the largest virtual charter schools in the state.
Shelby said it was a decision her mom Julie Morgan made, out of concern for COVID-19.
“She told me that I was going to a homeschool this year instead of going to high school,” Shelby said.
Shelby was on the fence.
“60% I wanted to go to school, and 40% I wanted to stay home,” she said.
After some technical difficulties and starting the school year late, the family started to get the hang of things. Morgan was taking college classes online at the same time her daughter was doing ninth grade virtually.
“We do school pretty much morning, noon and night, and then Shelby likes doing lessons late,” Morgan explained.
Shelby had live lessons every day, and her mom said there was a lot of support from teachers for both Shelby and her brother, who was yet another family member doing school online.
“I think she’s doing really good,” Morgan said. “I think she’s got a really good attitude, but Shelby’s always been super driven.”
Graduation rates for online programs vary a lot from year to year, but many are below the state average.
As a new school, the state does not have graduation rate data for the David Douglas Online Academy.
Willamette Connections Academy boasts an 86% graduation rate for the Class of 2021, which is higher than the state’s 81%. But it fluctuates. The graduation rate for the Class of 2020 was 67%.
But Austin and Shelby won’t likely be graduating from these online programs. Heading into sophomore year, they both plan to go back to attending school in-person.
An in-person sophomore year
Austin’s plan is to return to David Douglas High for his sophomore year. Shelby also intends to return to in-person school, but not at David Douglas.
Austin knows he will have to adjust to being back to school in-person. He’s starting 10th grade in a school he’s never attended. And he hasn’t been in a classroom since the middle of seventh grade.
“I’m not going to like having to go back to school, but it’s going to be much easier towards keeping on track and doing the work,” he said.
Vancil said she understands that not every student will stay at the online school.
“We were a good bridge for them,” she said.
Austin’s parents are hopeful that their children will do better academically in-person, but dad Bruce Clark has concerns about the risk of school violence.
The backpack Bruce bought for Austin to wear to school can be turned into a bulletproof vest.
“I just am worried about them in person,” Bruce said. “There’s so many weird things happening in this world these days, I liked having them at home.”
Amber is looking forward to the benefits of leaving home, such as increased social interactions.
“That’s something that the online school doesn’t give them, and they need it, it’s important that they have those skills so that they can advance in life,” she said.
Austin is looking forward to being with his teachers in-person again. He never met the teachers he had last year for freshman year.