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Districts are offering online schools as option for the year

Most Orange County public schools are planning to open the fall semester with online-only learning, and hoping to resume on-campus instruction once the number of coronavirus cases dips.

But not every student will be going back to on-campus instruction.

Several school districts either have existing online, virtual schools or are creating new ones.  They are separate schools from the online learning that most students will be channeled through for the time being.

They include long-established schools such as those at Capistrano Unified and Tustin Unified districts and new ones, including the Campus Cloud in Newport-Mesa Unified, LosAl@Home in Los Alamitos Unified, the Cambridge Virtual Academy in the Anaheim Union High School District and the Edge Virtual Academy in Orange Unified.

Following an order by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month, most schools will start online, then switch to a hybrid form of learning on and off campus that will eventually lead to school as usual. But for those families who choose an online school, most districts have asked that they commit, not just for the first semester but for the whole year.

Some parents, particularly in districts unveiling new online schools, say they’re barely getting time to process the information and are being pressured to choose their child’s path for all of 2020-21.

“I think it’s awful,” Russ May, whose son, Everett, is going into his senior year at Los Alamitos High School, said about having to make a decision now.

“I don’t think we should be making a decision about springtime in August,” said May, also a teacher and coach at Los Alamitos High from 2000 to 2009.

The Los Alamitos Unified School District, which unveiled information about the its new LosAl@Home online school at a board meeting last Thursday, originally asked its families to make a commitment by Monday, including for the spring semester that starts Jan. 28. The deadline was extended to Wednesday, Aug. 12. The district starts its school year on Aug. 31.

Dave Huber, a physical-education teacher at Los Alamitos High, where he also is the varsity girls volleyball head coach, said he understands what the school district is attempting.

“I think what they’re trying to do is minimize the number of kids in a classroom in that (traditional pathway) setting,” Huber said. “If someone suddenly (during the spring semester) wants to come back to being in school full-time that might upset the ratios they’re trying for.”

At Newport-Mesa Unified, parents were asked to decide whether their kids will stay with their home schools, (where they will likely move from online learning to a hybrid option before returning to a normal schedule) or switch to a new school called Cloud Campus. The deadline was Friday, the same day the district released more detailed information about how Cloud Campus will work. (On Saturday, district officials advised parents they have until Tuesday, Aug. 11, to change their choice.)

“It’s been very difficult to get information,” said Jamie Karutz, a parent with two children in the Newport-Mesa district, which starts its school year Aug. 24.

Parents like Karutz said they would like the option to switch their children from an online school to their home school if the pandemic eases and they feel it’s safe.

But administrators said that kind of switch mid-year would make things difficult for their districts.

“It would be very impactful to the district to continually switch students from completely different instructional models,” said Annette Franco, a spokeswoman for Newport-Mesa Unified.

“There’s been confusion between virtual school and distance learning,”  Franco said.

Like other districts, Newport-Mesa plans to start its students with online distance learning and then switch to a hybrid, blended format that will include some in-person smaller classes with face masks and safety protocols once students can return to campus. Eventually, the goal is to bring everyone back together to campus, but only once it’s deemed safe.

“That’s completely different from our virtual school,” Franco said. “That’s why we’re requiring a one-year commitment. If you’re in the virtual school, you’re in it for the year.”

Officials at most other districts said they also want to see a one-year commitment. In some, there may be a little flexibility.  At Orange Unified’s Edge Virtual Academy for grades seven through 12, district administrator Ed Howard wrote in an e-mail, they will consider “each request case by case.” And at Los Alamitos Unified, officials said they would consider requests to switch from online to home school and vice-versa depending on space availability in the TK-12 programs.

At the Anaheim Union High School District, where schools start Wednesday, Aug. 12, students have been asked to commit through the first semester, but most have indicated their intent to stay the year, said Jaron Fried, assistant superintendent of education.

Some Orange County public virtual schools have been around for a while.

Capistrano Unified’s schools are believed to be the oldest in the county.  The K-8 Capistrano Home/Virtual School opened in 1999 as a home school program that transferred to a virtual school in 2012, the same year the district opened its online California Preparatory Academy for high school students.

The latter includes electives such as digital photography, video production and drawing. Students who can’t find the advance placement courses they want in the online school can sign up for classes at their home school and attend in person.  Students also are encouraged to join clubs, sports, dances and other school activities, said Jolene Dougherty, Capistrano Unified’s principal of alternative education.

“They kind of get the best of both worlds,” Dougherty said.

The K-8 school is expected to nearly triple to a little more than 300 students in the fall and the high school is expected to grow by 25%, to some 400 students, Capistrano Unified spokesman Ryan Burris said.

Tustin Unified has a similar online independent study school that blends traditional schooling with an online education. Tustin Connect, a K-12 school, is going into its fifth year with some 400 students enrolled, about double the number from last year.

“We work really hard to make sure our curriculum is in line with the Tustin Unified School District,” Principal Erick Fineberg said. “We’re covering the same content so students can return to their (home) schools at the end of year, if that’s their choice.”

“Some students have been with us all five years,” Fineberg said. “Some just a year.”

The newer schools set to open in the coming weeks differ in what they offer their students. Newport-Mesa’s Cloud Campus, for example, will not offer athletics, arts or extracurricular opportunities. At Los Alamitos Unified, students can participate in sports, but they won’t get a physical education credit. At Orange Unified, Edge students can join athletics and performing arts in their home schools. At Anaheim Union’s Cambridge Virtual Academy, electives will include arts and an opportunity to participate in school clubs and other extracurricular activities, but athletics won’t be offered the first year.

Some of the new online schools have been in the planning since before the pandemic. That includes the Cambridge Virtual Academy, a projects-based K-12 school that offers an honors track, advance placement courses and career technical pathways.

Online learning offers “a huge opportunity,” said Anaheim Union Superintendent Michael Matsuda, to harness both the creative abilities of students as well as teachers.

Source: Orange County Register

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