Originally published to The Spokesman-Review on April 21, 2022
Virtual learning has grown more popular after parents and students forced to use it during the pandemic discovered that it allowed them to work at their own pace and attend school outside normal school hours if they chose.
Some students and families have grown to prefer online learning, said Lisa Skay, administrator of the West Valley Virtual Learning Center. The learning center, housed inside Seth Woodard Elementary School, launched last fall.
“It sort of sprung up because of COVID,” Skay said. “We knew there would be some parents who would still be interested in virtual learning for whatever reason.”
When the Virtual Learning Center opened it had 50 students in grades K-8. That has since increased to 65 and interest appears to be rising. While registration for the 2022-2023 is now open, Skay said she’s received calls from parents interested in making the switch now, but it’s too late in the school year.
When Skay and her three teachers began work, they expected to attract some students from neighboring school districts. They got them, particularly from the Central Valley School District and Spokane Public Schools.
“It was really shocking for us the amount of interest we got from outside our district, even from the West Side,” she said.
The program was limited by the state to only enroll 10% of its students from outside the school district.
“We filled that pretty quickly,” she said.
West Valley has since petitioned OSPI for permission to allow an unlimited number of out-of-district students, which could create the potential for a lot of growth, Skay said. OSPI has not responded to the request.
What sets West Valley’s program apart from other virtual options is the dedicated teacher that each student has. One teacher handles grades K-2, another leads grades 3-5 and the third teacher oversees grades 6-8.
Elementary students are required to attend a virtual meeting every morning with their teacher to touch base, do social emotional learning activities and interact with each other. Middle school students have two mandatory meetings each week.
“The kids still have a way to feel like they are a part of a community,” she said. “We just really felt that was important.”
The teachers hold optional virtual sessions each day for students who need extra help in math, reading and other subjects. Other than that, students are free to complete the work on their own schedule. That feature is attractive to some students and parents.
“We’re there as a guide on the side in case they need extra support,” she said.
Students are given needed supplies, textbooks and a Chromebook at the beginning of the school year. The program uses a software called K12 Stride in which students do assignments and submit their work.
“It really is designed for virtual learning,” she said.
Teachers also check in with each student and family once a month to monitor the student’s progress. Middle school students have the option to take in-person classes in the district for subjects like music.
“We’ve been listening to families and what they need,” Skay said.
Parents of younger students expressed an interest in more social interaction, so the district added optional monthly field trips in January.
“When available, we bring a computer and do a virtual field trip for those who can’t make it,” she said. “We try to make this as real of a school as possible.”
Last week, the program invited students to an optional in-person Earth Day Extravaganza, where they rotated through various stations and interacted with their peers. It appeared to be a success.
Even though mask mandates have ended and most kids have gone back to in-person classes, Skay said she thinks there’s still a place for virtual learning.
“I think parents have realized that by having their students at home, they have more control over what their kids are learning,” she said. “We want to continue this program. It’s fulfilling a need out there. These teachers are really passionate about their work.”
To learn more about West Valley Virtual Learning Center, visit vlc.wvsd.org