- Voice of San Diego - https://www.voiceofsandiego.org -

Students and Teachers Got Better at Online Learning. Now It’s Here to Stay.

Alex Guel, a second-grade student at Discovery Elementary School, works on her class assignment at home. Her mother, Aurora Guel, is leading efforts to reopen schools in the San Marcos Unified School District. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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The pandemic forced teachers and students – ready or not – to get better at teaching and learning online. And now that remote learning has been involuntarily driven into the bedrock of educational practice, it appears here to stay.

Even though all school districts across San Diego County are planning returns to in-person learning, most will offer more robust online learning options than they ever have before.

“We’ve learned a lot from COVID – and most of it has been a nightmare – but some of it has been positive and creating an online academy is a benefit we can take out of the pandemic,” Richard Barrera, board president of San Diego Unified, previously told Voice of San Diego.

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San Diego Unified is one of many districts across the county that plan to do just that. Any student in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade will be allowed to learn online if they choose, Barrera said.

Exactly why families choose to stay online will vary. The largest chunk may still fear the effects of COVID-19. But many reasons go beyond the pandemic. Some students with severe anxiety or those who have experienced bullying may learn better online. And students of color – who have faced discrimination from their teachers, as well as in disciplinary practices – may also feel they can get a better education at home.

escondido schools covid
Bear Valley Middle School students work on a class assignment. The Escondido Union School District has offered a hybrid model that includes in-person instruction. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“Black students have not been served well by schools for decades, if not longer,” Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at UCLA who has studied the experience of Black students, previously told VOSD. “Some parents may be thinking, ‘Why should I send my child back to that environment if there is something different I can offer?’”

During the pandemic, the number of Black families choosing to educate their children at home rose dramatically. The percentage of Black families homeschooling their children more than quintupled from 3 percent to 16 percent, according to the Census Bureau, the New Yorker reported. Granted, home school is not the same as online school. But it’s fair to think more students of color may opt for online learning, Howard said.

When the 2020-21 school year drew to a close, roughly 44 percent of students were still in distance learning. But older students were far more likely to remain in distance learning than their younger peers, a VOSD analysis found. Roughly 53 percent of high schoolers remained in distance learning, even after schools reopened – a trend that could continue into the next school year.

Those who choose not to return to in-person learning will still have some of the perks of a neighborhood school, Barrera said. High schoolers and middle schoolers in San Diego Unified, for instance, will still be able to participate in athletics and extracurriculars, like band, even if they’re enrolled in an online academy.

Most experts believe online learning is more effective with older students. And San Diego’s numbers show many of them seem to prefer it. So without the incentive of extracurriculars pushing them to enroll in their neighborhood schools, it’s possible many will opt to go online.

There will, however, be a slightly higher bar for enrolling in online school. During the pandemic, children were considered to be enrolled at their neighborhood school, even if they were taking classes online. They didn’t have to take any extra steps to be enrolled online. It just happened by default.

Now most districts will require students to specifically enroll at an online virtual academy. San Diego Unified has iHigh Virtual Academy. Sweetwater Union will have Launch Virtual Academy. Poway Unified has Connect Academy.

So in San Diego Unified, for instance, if a high schooler is enrolled at Hoover High then they’ll need to attend in person next year. If they want to go to school online, they’d need to enroll at iHigh or any other online academy the district operates.

New versions of online learning will likely factor in far more synchronous learning time – meaning students will be in a video classroom with a teacher – than previous pre-pandemic iterations of remote learning.

But the benefits of online learning may not be matched by students’ preference for it. On average, most students do better in an in-person class than online, according to most research related to K-12 schools. And students who are already struggling academically fare even worse than their peers in online courses, Education Week reported.

But just because students don’t do as well on average doesn’t mean all students don’t do well. Some – presumably more independent learners and those highly motivated to control their own schedule – can perform better in an online setting.

Many school districts across the country, including the New York City school system, have decided to actively combat the drift toward online learning. Those districts will not offer online alternatives to the vast majority of their students.

Barrera acknowledged that many students might not do as well in an online setting. But he previously told VOSD it’s important to give families the agency to decide what’s best for themselves.

“Do you take a position where you say, ‘Well that’s just a wrong way of thinking’?” Barrera said. “We’re not going to deny that [online learning] option.”