Last week marked the beginning of Ameena Sinno’s second year attending school online.
The Dubuque Community Schools third-grader spent the week getting to know her teacher and classmates, playing games and learning what third grade will be like as she starts a new school year in a virtual format.
“I love virtual school because I think it helps us learn a lot,” Ameena said.
This is the second year the Dubuque district has offered a fully virtual option for students in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the number of students using online learning has dropped significantly since last year, district leaders saw enrollment increase ahead of the new school year amid the rise of the delta variant.
In many ways, the district’s virtual learning program looks similar to last year, with some tweaks to streamline the offering and others to accommodate a smaller number of students.
“I think a big key is the fact that we’re trying to be very flexible and fluid with what is going on in the community and respond to that in the most supportive way that we can,” said Lisa TeBockhorst, the district’s executive director of elementary education.
At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, 272 students were signed up for the district’s online program — 76 elementary school students, 44 middle-schoolers and 152 high-schoolers.
At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, 1,291 students were attending school virtually, down from about 2,300 at the start of last school year.
TeBockhorst said the number of elementary students opting for virtual learning doubled in August amid rising COVID-19 case numbers locally and the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. Available vaccines currently are not approved for children younger than 12.
“The delta variant, I think, had a key role in this,” TeBockhorst said. “As there were more cases identified in Dubuque County, I think that gave some concern to some families, and they wanted to use that option.”
Mark Burns, the district’s executive director of secondary education, said officials saw a small increase in the number of older students enrolling in online learning this month.
“We heard from folks, both from middle school students who are not old enough to be vaccinated yet and families wanted to have them be virtual, … and then we heard from families who had pre-existing conditions and so then for the safety of the family, (they opted for virtual learning),” Burns said.
At the elementary level, students follow a schedule that includes video conferencing sessions with their teachers, both in large and small groups.
This fall, the three elementary teachers offering online instruction all are housed at Sageville Elementary School, where they share space in a temporary building on campus. The teachers offer instruction for first- through fifth-graders, with each assigned to different grades but able to access support from their colleagues for small-group instruction based on student needs.
“If you look at our first- and second-grade students, they are students that definitely had some impact at an early foundational time, so we also looked at the needs and just wanted to make sure that we had ample supports in place,” TeBockhorst said.
At the middle and high school level, students again are accessing the vast majority of their classes through the Edgenuity online platform, though a few courses are being offered via video conferencing.
Late last school year, administrators made plans to offer live, virtual instruction to middle school students in most classes. However, officials had to nix those plans because of the small number of middle-school students who signed up for virtual learning, Burns said.
“We looked at the number of students per grade level, and at one point, I think we had three in sixth grade, and we just determined that we couldn’t have teachers teaching a class of three,” Burns said. “So as we made that decision in sixth grade, that carried over into seventh and eighth.”
Brie Nadermann is teaching the district’s virtual students in second and third grade this fall. Her students learn via a mix of live teaching time, recorded lessons and independent work.
“When I’m teaching second grade live, third grade is then either watching a recorded lesson or doing an asynchronous task, then it flips,” she said.
During the first week of school, she worked to ease her students into the virtual setup and to ensure all of them were on the same page. She said her students so far have been excited to be in class and have been flexible and patient.
Nadermann said she was glad to see the Dubuque district offer an online option this year, noting that some families might be dealing with health concerns amid the pandemic, while other students learn better in a virtual format.
“I think it shows that our district is really supportive of what our families need because for some of our families and our students, going back to school in person is just not an option right now,” Nadermann said.
Ameena is one of Nadermann’s students this fall and said she likes that in virtual school, she gets breaks to catch up on her work and she also gets to use more technology.
Ameena and her brother Zakariya, who is in second grade, spent all of last year in virtual school as well. Their mom, Holly Sinno, is waiting on a COVID-19 vaccine to be available for younger children before sending them back to school in person.
“We’ll return to more normal in our household, but we will wait until they can be vaccinated until we do that,” Holly said.
She noted that Ameena thrived last year in an online environment, though Zakariya needed more support and supervision. Still, virtual learning is the family’s best option at this point, Holly said.
She said the first week of the new school year came with some adjustments to technology changes but that the district’s virtual program so far seems to be more streamlined this year.
Holly said she is glad her family has the option for virtual learning again this fall.
“It’s a wonderful option to have for people who want to keep their kids home during this time,” she said.