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Superintendent On Why Some Students Might Thrive Under Virtual Learning

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

More students in the U.S. are heading back to school for in-person learning these days, but there are some who aren't that eager to return to the classroom.

DANE MYRON: I felt bored in class and in-person school before the pandemic. Whenever something new was being taught, I would always be the first person in the class to grasp it, finishing whatever work there was to do in class when there was still 30, 40 minutes left in the class period.

MCCAMMON: That's Dane Myron (ph), a junior at South High School in Denver. For our series Learning Curve, we reached out to him and some others to hear more about the virtues of virtual.

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MYRON: Virtual learning has been sweet. I still have high grades, but when I'm done with my work, I usually will just hang out with pets or just go do something else I'd rather be doing. I do miss being able to have lunch with all of my friends, but I still see them all, usually at least once a week when we're playing Dungeons and Dragons.

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MICHELLE WIST: There's been so much noise about parents who are understandably unhappy that we don't have normal school, but normal isn't working for everyone.

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WIST: My name is Michelle Wist (ph). I actually live in Reston, Va. My older daughter - she's 11 - she has ADHD and is very distracted by the behavior of other kids in the classroom. And sort of removing that element has made it extremely productive for her. She's very able to focus, and she has had an opportunity to develop some executive function skills that are deficits for her because she has to stay organized in the online learning setting.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Alex (ph) was a very stressed out kid. He has some learning challenges, so he has to work twice as hard to keep up. You know, he would receive the assignment in his class. His classmates work at a faster pace. They're done with their assignments, and they're talking and socializing. He was really self-conscious. You know, there were a lot of snickerings left and right near him in class. It is middle school. He was absolutely hating a lot of the subjects, and he would mentally just shut down.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Having virtual education removes some of that stress. You know, a year ago, my son would have been just absolutely fearful of getting up and giving a presentation in class or even really speaking. And now, with virtual, he has given at least five presentations with confidence. He has just leaps and bounds improved in every area. You know how some kids sneak reading or playing video games at night? He's doing math at night. That never would have happened before. It's incredible, the change.

MCCAMMON: One school system that recognizes the benefits of virtual learning is the Denton Independent School District, just outside of Dallas, Texas. Right now, about a third of its more than 30,000 students are taking classes online, and they'll still have that option next year. That's because the district recently announced the launch of a new K-8 virtual academy.

Jamie Wilson is the superintendent, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JAMIE WILSON: Thank you for having me today, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Now, is this just about accommodating families who are worried about COVID, or are there other reasons why families and students want to stay online?

WILSON: So we've been in in-person learning in our school district since the Tuesday after Labor Day and giving our parents a choice to learn from home. As the year has progressed, some families have made the decision to stay at home. That could be for a health reason, or it could be because they're actually seeing some benefits to online learning. So we're planning to meet both needs.

MCCAMMON: What kinds of students so far are you seeing benefit the most from virtual learning?

WILSON: Really, we're seeing a cross-section of all of our students. We're seeing students with special needs. We're seeing students of gifted and talented. Some of our students who may be ADD are able to focus for shorter periods of time. And some students really can work through their curriculum a little faster, and it allows some self-pacing to happen for our students and their families. So really, it's an individual decision that allows our students and their families to make a choice of how they want to receive their instruction.

MCCAMMON: So much of school, in addition to academic instruction - let's face it. A lot of it is about learning how to be around other people (laughter), how to socialize with peers and with adults. How do you compensate for what kids who stay home maybe year after year are not getting in that environment?

WILSON: We undoubtedly believe that our families will choose to be involved in extracurricular activities at school. We may even have some clubs that are available to our students. In addition to that, if you think about our families - and most families in general - as we've gone through the pandemic, they've identified themselves small clusters of students for them to get with and be around so that they do get that social, emotional learning and they do have opportunities to forge relationships.

It's really teaching us some things about collaboration and the ability of our students to self-select some collaborators for their online learning as they have kind of started with their own hubs in our forced online learning environment. So we think when we get intentional with it and we train our teachers with making the best of our online learning environment, that we'll even get as good or better results than we're seeing with our in-person learners.

MCCAMMON: What have you figured out works and doesn't work when it comes to virtual school?

WILSON: The first thing we've learned is that we have to make sure that our teachers understand there has to be some structure, that our families understand the need for structure, and what's expected at home with regard to connectivity, to device access, to a space for learning, to uninterrupted time and what that means. And then we start working through the pedagogy of delivering the instruction. How do we have whole group instruction with direct teach? What do we do online for students to learn on their own? How do they work within groups? What's the effective way to chat in a chat box? How do you submit your work, your assignments? So once you get through all those things, then it becomes a - pretty much a normal classroom. It's just not 22 students and a teacher within four walls, but it's outside in the regular world.

MCCAMMON: And what kind of a response are you getting so far from students and families to this announcement that you will be offering virtual learning next year?

WILSON: In our community, you can hear our parents just really appreciative that our school system is trying to create an option for them. You're also starting to see some of our families recognize that this is an opportunity for us to do some things as a family and give us some flexibility. And, you know, the younger the student, the less lengthy our online time with their teacher will be at one time. It may be more periodic throughout the day so that we can really measure for those attention spans. But our families are really intrigued by what we're working to offer. And our community has come to expect a really high quality product from us. That's why we're taking it on, and I think that's why our families are excited about it.

MCCAMMON: Jamie Wilson, superintendent of Denton Independent School District near Dallas, which is launching a virtual academy this fall. Thank you so much.

WILSON: Thank you, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.