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Thousands of Washington students choose virtual learning despite return to in-person classes

While Washington's COVID-19 restrictions start to roll back and school masking could be going away - the virtual learning model is sticking around due to demand.

SEATTLE, Wash. — Students in Washington state are finally learning and going to in-person classes more regularly compared to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While discussions to get rid of school masking are underway, one aspect of schooling synonymous with the pandemic is sticking around: virtual learning.

For one family in Renton, virtual learning was a manageable and welcomed approach to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 exposure. Scott Van Essen and Myra Martino both have the ability to work from home as a game designer and a writer, respectively.

While feasible, the couple said virtual learning did come with challenges, including the flexibility in a day to get things done.

“Did I enjoy that year? No. I felt trapped," explained Myra Martino. "But at the same time, Max learned... Laurel did great."

Sixth-grader Max is non-verbal and has autism and epilepsy.

"Going to school with Max - that's hard work," said Myra Martino.

The couple said having support from Max's school was important. Max also has Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), where someone would come to their house and work with him on everyday life skills.

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In addition, Myra Martino said Max was getting a great balance of daily learning.

“They even had gym," she said. “I'd come in, and Max would be trying to do some jumping jacks, and the gym teacher made these great videos. The teachers at Carriage Crest went above and beyond."

Laurel and Max powered through remote learning at the Kent School District with some changes at home. Scott Van Essen took on some "pandemic projects" by building a climbing wall for Max, and converting a guest room into a classroom for both kids to use.

Eventually, now eighth grader Laurel said her bedroom became the best place to study because it was quiet, and she could organize herself in one space.

Laurel said she found some positives while learning remotely with her cat Ripley comforting her on her lap on most days.

“I feel personally, for me, being virtual made the transition between elementary and middle school easier for me because it’s online," said Laurel. "So you don’t actually have to travel between the classes. There’s only three classes, three teachers a day, less work.”

Myra Martino said she noticed a change in Laurel's confidence as her daughter made the return to in-person learning.

"Her teachers said they loved that she was often the first person to speak in class," said Martino. "Which might not always have been the case in the past."

Scott Van Essen said his family was willing to make remote learning work because the risks of contracting COVID-19 were unknown early on in the pandemic.

“I learned a lot about parenting and teaching because of Max," Van Essen said. "There's a lot on you, especially as a special needs parent. We have a lot of support and we depend on a lot of support."

Meeting the demand for virtual learning 

Virtual learning may have started as something students, families and districts dreaded. But two years into the pandemic, some school districts are receiving survey responses from families giving positive feedback on a hybrid or virtual learning model.

"We were kind of forced to do [virtual learning] last year," said Chris Reykdal, the Washington state superintendent of public instruction. "When we got to this year, where it was really the choice of most families, the response has been positive for the, you know, 2% of families that made that shift, which is 20,000. They did it for a reason. It's because they really prefer that model of flexibility.”

Some Washington school districts like Seattle, Bellevue, Kent and Tacoma listened to feedback from parents and students and have already taken action to meet the demand for ongoing virtual learning.

Seattle Public Schools

  • The Virtual Option Pilot Program (VOPP) launched last fall
  • K-12 students enrolled: 377 (full capacity)

Tacoma School District

  • Tacoma Online launched in 2020
  • K-12 students enrolled: 1,600
  • Each student currently receives a program laptop for schoolwork 

Kent School District

  • Plans to launch online school next fall
  • Currently gathering feedback from district families
  • Program will be different than hybrid or remote models used during the pandemic

Bellevue School District

  • In the process of planning a long-term online learning option
  • Plans to share newly developed model in the coming months

Studying the impacts of virtual learning 

All districts KING 5 spoke to for this report said the most common challenges for remote learning were access to technology and reliable Wi-Fi.

The same challenges existed among college students as well, according to Ann Ishimaru, Bridge Family associate professor at the University of Washington.

"The access issues were pretty major," said Ishimaru. "Especially though for a growing population of students experiencing homelessness."

Jason Naranjo, Ph. D., an associate teaching professor in the UW School of Education Studies, Special Education UW-Bothell, said many students were finding creative ways to access the internet.

"I saw students showing up on campus to use the internet from their cars during the pandemic because it was a place that they could get free, high-quality internet," said Naranjo.

When it comes to envisioning the future of virtual learning, Naranjo said it depends on access.

Other outcomes of virtual learning were discovered during the pandemic. Ishimaru said a UW study in partnership with Seattle Public Schools revealed an unexpected "positive" from Black students participating in virtual learning.

"One of the things that we found was that many of them had a reprieve," explained Ishimaru. “They were relieved, actually, to not be in school, because their experiences of schooling were so full of microaggressions - racial microaggressions."

Ishimaru said the study revealed Black students were able to "be more at ease in their own home" and could be themselves. While the sense of "relief" was reported, Ishimaru said, some "Black students and other students of color have remained remote for reasons related to those dynamics, but it's hard to say that they're having a better experience."

Click here to see the full 47-page UW research report.

Logging on versus in-person classrooms 

When asked if the future of education would ever go "fully digital," Naranjo said that's not something that can be answered just yet.

"We don't know yet," said Naranjo. "I think what excites me about ways that we interact with digital technologies is the way in which we can harness those technologies to make our schools better places and more inclusive places.”

Reykdal said school buildings and in-person learning will always be a part of K-12 learning, but technology will allow for more students to potentially "plugin" to other classes not offered at their own schools.

"I don't see 7-year-olds sitting at home learning remotely on their own, like, it's such a logistical challenge to find care and coverage for them," explained Reykdal. "I don't see a lot of change in K-8. I definitely see more transformation in high school years and beyond."

Last week, KING 5 reporter Farah Jadran conducted a Twitter poll asking where people stand on the idea of virtual learning. Here are the results:


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