This spring, as a result of the stay-at-home order to safeguard against COVID-19, every Michigan student suddenly experienced at-home learning. Students accustomed to traditional in-class instruction discovered new ways to master academic topics under emergency learning circumstances with a variety of results.
But students who already were at-home learners simply carried on with their education as usual.
As families contemplate a return to in-classroom learning for the fall, an estimated 20% of parents are not comfortable with the idea of returning to school, says Julie Alspach, program administrator with the Virtual Learning Academy Consortium (VLAC) at Oakland Schools. “Some may have elderly grandparents living in their home and they can’t risk having their student expose them to coronavirus,” she says.
Parents do have options. For the past seven years, Oakland Schools has run a successful at-home learning program for grades K-12 that is a public school option for parents and other caregivers who are willing and ready to guide their child’s learning in a flexible, home-based environment. Oakland Schools supports 53 school districts in 10 counties and provides education to about 300 students who achieve academic success through virtual learning. Some districts have generous school of choice policies that allow remote students to enroll in virtual learning.
Many VLAC students have athletic or professional careers and need the flexibility at-home learning provides. “We have had tennis players who are training for the Olympics, a snowboarder in Switzerland, even a child acting on set in California,” Alspach says. Other students may have religious commitments several mornings each week, or have medical or mental health challenges that require more flexibility than in-classroom learning allows. Still, others homeschool individually or in groups and rely on VLAC because its curriculum aligns with district learning standards.
Parents who are considering at-home learning for their children have choices. Here’s a short guide to help make informed decisions.
Ask lots of questions. It’s important to know how your student will be supported by educators. How many students will each certified teacher support? How quickly will the teacher respond? Is the curriculum aligned? How rigorous is the program? “If you are told your fifth grader will work one hour a day and the school year is three months, the rigor is probably not there,” Aslpach says. “Virtual learning takes time.”
Study the program carefully. Start digging to find out who supports the program. Is it a public school, a charter school or a for-profit school? “The school should have a place where you can get answers, and if not, that’s an answer in itself,” Alspach says. “You want to make sure you are dealing with the principal and the teachers, and not just an enrollment desk. We talk with parents every day.”
Assess your own level of commitment. A first-grade student learning at home will require several hours a day from a dedicated parent or caregiver. A middle schooler might need supervision to stay on task or work through more nuanced content, and a high school student may need continual check-ins for effective time management. “If you are an engineer, for example, math and science may not be a problem. But creative writing? Research what support you might need to find for your child for that area,” Alspach says.
Assess your child’s interest level. “If your child is self-directed and interested in learning, it will be a different journey than if your child needs a lot of redirection,” Alspach says.
Create your workspace. Your child will need adequate physical space for books and supplies, but your larger workspace can also include collaboration. “We have students who work in small community cohorts. You may decide you want to organize the science experiments and reach out to other homeschoolers,” Alspach says.
Virtual learning requires relationships. In addition to parental and family support, students benefit from a strong relationship with their online teacher. “Our teachers do live lessons where students interact with their teacher and with each other,” Alspach says. “We still do field trips and program events and a welcome to school, both in-person and virtual.”
Learn more about Oakland Schools VLAC at oakland.k12.mi.us and virtuallearningacademyconsortium.org.