Will Arizona schools continue to offer online learning? What districts are doing for fall
Elementary school families who enroll at Flagstaff Unified School District this fall will have a new learning option: virtual, live instruction.
That option, the Flagstaff Online Academy, didn’t exist a few months ago.
Like Flagstaff, public school districts and charter schools across Arizona are preparing a range of online learning options for the fall, from a remote version of their regular curriculum to entirely standalone virtual schools.
As schools plan to return to a more traditional in-person school program in the fall, they are hearing from some families who say they aren’t ready yet.
Even as vaccines are more widely available, districts are seeing interest in a remote option from students:
- who live with high-risk family members, often in intergenerational households,
- who work jobs that require more flexibility for school hours;
- or who simply struggle with social anxiety and appreciate the chance to take classes virtually.
The Flagstaff district hopes its new academy can meet that need and, in a year when schools across Arizona saw a historic drop in enrollment, keep students enrolled.
Interviews with several districts across the state, both in urban and rural settings, show that many are building on the remote learning options they already offered. The new classes are, however, more likely to have real-time instruction instead of students completing assignments on their own time, and to be run alongside an already-existing curriculum or program.
It’s one sign that COVID-19 could have a long-term effect on how Arizona students go to school. This fall is the proving ground.
A new step into online schooling
Mesa Public Schools and the Paradise Valley Unified School District have run online learning programs for years. But after more than a year of pandemic schooling, both have revamped their remote learning programs for the fall, creating a distanced classroom experience that bridges some aspects of the last year with some elements of a more traditional learning model.
Paradise Valley ran PV Online, which allows students to complete classes at their own pace, for several years prior to the pandemic. Then this past year, teachers in the district taught both online and remote students at the same time, a setup both educators and administrators found untenable.
When the district launches its new remote learning program for the fall, PV Connect, it will have dedicated instructors.
“Kids will get 100% of the attention that way,” superintendent Andre Long said.
Mesa Public Schools, the state’s biggest district, has run a supplemental online program, which allowed students to take some credits outside of normal school hours, for two decades. Its new program, the K-12 Mesa Virtual Campus, will be more like a traditional school.
“Students will be expected to be online and participating with a teacher,” said Jennifer Echols, director of the Mesa Distance Learning Program.
This year, the Legislature passed a bill to help school districts open online programs without having to accredit them as an AOI, or Arizona online instruction. The AOI designation allows districts and charters to run fully online learning programs but funds those attending full-time at 95% of the funding for in-person students.
Under the bill, districts or schools can offer online learning with a cap on hours of remote instruction — no more than 50%.
With that flexibility, Mesa Public Schools is able to plan for a full-time online learning program for students formally connected with one of their brick-and-mortar schools.
The work of designing new programs versus growing already is existing ones is also an indicator of how school officials see the demand.
Officials at J.O. Combs Unified School District in Pinal County say they will run online-only options this fall through their online school program, which is already accredited as an AOI. But they anticipate less than 5% of the student body will choose it.
Legacy Traditional Schools, a 19-school charter network, will launch a fully online school next fall. It will hire dedicated online teachers to support students, instead of having educators split their attention between an in-person and remote class. Even after its schools opened for in-person learning, about 40% of its student body chose to learn remotely.
Still, some of the barriers that made remote learning difficult during the pandemic could dog any effort to expand online options, chief among them access to technology like computers and reliable internet.
At Cedar Unified School District on the Navajo reservation, families struggled to connect to the internet. But many, particularly those in intergenerational homes with relatives who have health conditions that put them at high risk if they contract the coronavirus, remain nervous about sending their students to sit in a classroom with a teacher.
Now, students will have the option to learn remotely, but on site at district schools. They'll connect to classes through their school's internet connection and will have to abide by the physical attendance norms of in-person schooling, said Superintendent Corrina Begay.
“If a parent is wanting their child to do remote, and we know their participation was less than 50% last year, we will recommend on-site remote.”
The search for students
More than 38,500 children dropped from the rolls of both virtual and physical classrooms in Arizona this past school year, a 3.3% loss over the previous year. Now, the defining question is how schools can bring back and re-engage those students.
The Department of Education launched a statewide campaign this summer, “Ready for School AZ,” to encourage families to re-enroll, with an emphasis on bringing students back for in-person learning. That effort includes an enrollment hotline, radio and TV ads, and support for families in finding housing or food aid resources.
The expectation, department spokesperson Morgan Dick said, is that all schools offer in-person learning, but it is up to individual districts or networks whether to offer a remote option.
Some districts have decided to offer only in-person learning — and hope it means the majority of students will return to classrooms.
Parker Unified School District in rural La Paz County will only offer in-person classes next fall. The district saw an 8% drop in enrollment last school year, but a majority of students returned when it reopened school buildings this past spring under the governor's executive order.
“What we are seeing is, once we came back in person, we had more children coming back to us,” Superintendent Brad Sale said.
It helps that the district includes the Colorado River Indian Reservation, which Sale says has done “a fantastic job” of vaccinating people.
“We are a step closer to a new normal.”
Charter network BASIS also will offer only in-person classes.
“Our high-achieving, above grade level curriculum — with world-class teachers — is best suited for in-person delivery,” BASIS said in a statement.
A changing plan for the school year
It's not clear how many schools will be in person only. A provision under consideration in the state budget could require schools to report how many days their students spent on in-person instruction or distance learning.
Even as many districts offer new remote options, they caution that, with the COVID-19 situation changing, they aren’t sure what demand will be like for their online schools come fall.
Districts have sent surveys to families and done some advertising, but school leaders say much of it was before vaccinations for teenagers were widely available. How COVID-19 variants and community-level vaccination rates will affect schools in the fall remain to be seen.
Still, Echols, from Mesa, stresses that she doesn't see the rise of interest in remote learning as a purely health-related decision.
“We did get some feedback from some of our families that their children really appreciated the format,” she said. “I’m very happy that we are able to provide that for our community.”