Last month, as classes around the state moved online, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration announced plans to contract with the Florida Virtual School to provide online classes to students for free. The program could cost the state more than $500,000.
Alaska’s contract with the online school followed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s recommendation to Alaska Commissioner of Education Michael Johnson. State officials defended the decision as a necessary, temporary measure that would provide students with education as classrooms closed, and lessons went online.
“Commissioner Johnson wanted to be able to offer options basically that would be free of charge for schools and for families,” said Tammy Van Wyhe, division director for innovation and education excellence at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
She said there are benefits of the virtual school model.
“There are a lot of different statewide correspondence programs in the State of Alaska, but they all require enrollment, so a student basically has to unenroll from the local school to enroll in one of the correspondence programs,” she said.
The Florida Virtual School doesn’t require students to leave their current school to enroll in the out-of-state one. But while there can be benefits for certain Alaska students, many worry that this model won’t be beneficial for rural schools off the road system.
Nome-Beltz Social Studies teacher Aaron Blankenship, who spent some time in online school himself, said he sees some positive uses for the Florida Virtual School.
“There’s a subset of students who work really well self-paced, on their own,” he said, “and this model of education can be really good for them if it’s rigorous, if they’re provided the support and accommodation they need, if the learning is developed to them.”
However, Blankenship also has concerns with the speed in which Alaska’s newest virtual option is being implemented.
“As teachers right now are finding out, rebuilding your curriculum isn’t something that happens in a week, and it’s not something that happens in a month,” he said.
He isn’t alone in his skepticism. Nome Public Schools Superintendent Jamie Burgess has her own concerns about Nome students switching to a virtual-school model and losing cultural context.
“One of the really key things for our kids to be successful here, I really believe, is that the curriculum truly has to be relevant to them,” she said. “And (in) most of these courses, there’s no personalization, there’s no consideration of cultural needs and relevance to our community.”
Instead, Burgess has an alternative she would prefer to use:
“I think that the better solution for our kids for online learning, would be for us to have the opportunity to develop our own content and our own teachers with expertise in online learning,” she said.
Concerns over the virtual school model are not limited to just the furthest reaches of the Last Frontier either. Norman Wooten, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, says the organization and the state education department have been in constant contact about the topic.
“I think that we have the capacity from a number of school districts in the state of Alaska to offer the same program that is more culturally relevant to the kids in Alaska through a virtual or homeschool distance-delivery model for those parents who choose that, and for those schools who choose to supplement their face-to-face teaching with virtual (teaching),” said Wooten.
Van Wyhe said she wanted to assure Alaska-based educators that the use of teachers from the Florida Virtual School Model is just a temporary measure and no Alaska jobs are at stake.
“That’s just for the first phase. We’re calling them the ‘COVID Classes,’ so these courses that basically cover the last nine weeks of the school year and were meant to help fill in the gaps and provide resources to educators,” she said.
This model can, however, help students maintain some level of normalcy in their educational tract, she said. Students can potentially use this as a way to minimize their remedial needs.
While the method for educating during the next school year is unknown, the education plans to have Alaskan students fully taught by Alaskan teachers in the fall of the 2020-2021 school year. The department also notes that utilizing the virtual school program is optional, citing concerns for feasibility in schools in the Western half of the state.
“I think if we look ahead to next year, there might be some teachers that have an interest in developing those skills and maybe look at exploring, ‘What can we do?’” said Burgess, the superintendent. “There’s a lot of things we can do with the platform that we have available if we feel that there is a need or a desire for some students to look at more fully online classes”
Choosing to not opt into the virtual school model will not negatively impact state funding for Nome Public Schools nor will there be state-instituted consequences. School districts and families have full autonomy to choose the distance-delivery model they believe will be most effective going forward.