COVID-19: Schools must meet community needs by offering choice in education

By Randy Vetsch
September 18, 2020 

The COVID-19 pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on education. Since March, educators have been scrambling to meet the needs of diverse learners in the state of Minnesota while keeping the health and wellbeing of students as a top priority.

We have relied on creativity to find new and innovative ways to deliver lessons, to keep students engaged and to still build a community in a virtual learning landscape.

Working closely with local and national health departments, we have learned how to best accommodate a safe return to campus and build protocols and procedures for situations we never imagined we would need to prepare for. We have also prioritized the mental health of our students learning from home.

Now more than ever, educators have a heightened duty to support children educationally and emotionally, all the while prioritizing their health and the health of our school staff.

Unfortunately, while we have seen a myriad of options presented to parents, there are not many good options. Families are being asked to accommodate schedules that neither allow them to continue to work and support their family, or that force them to send their children to school even if they are uncomfortable with doing so.

To meet the needs of all families in these trying times, we have to offer solutions to accommodate all. Choice is the answer. Parents need options that accommodate their individual situation, whether that is sending students to a safe school environment with a normalized schedule or offering a year-long distance learning program that engages virtual learners with access to flexible schedules and local teachers.

Last spring, in immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Athlos Academy of St. Cloud worked to form a distance learning structure for families and staff over a weekend to ensure that no student learning time was lost due to the closures. Our focus was on ensuring students continued to receive a high-quality education that aligned with the school’s model and that it was simple for families to navigate.Get the Daily Briefing newsletter in your inbox.

As part of this effort, we distributed more than 125 devices to students in need of technology and more than 3,800 meals to children in need in the community, whether they were enrolled at Athlos or not. We utilized our transportation company to take these meals out into the community, keeping our bus drivers employed and meeting those families who could not drive to pick up meals.

Students watched recorded lessons from their teacher to maintain continuity of relationships and pacing in the curriculum; completed exit tickets as a form of attendance and to allow teachers to assess their level of comprehension; and teachers offered live office hours via Zoom for students to ask questions and interact with their peers.

Over the summer, our leadership team built out this program to what is

now Athlos Virtual Academy and is available to any student living in the state of Minnesota for the remainder of the school year.

At the same time, we worked in partnership with local and national health departments and the Minnesota Department of Education to assure we were not only meeting, but exceeding safety requirements. Our goals for our on-campus learners are to offer a safe five-day classroom experience that is as close to a regular classroom as possible.

Last week, we started both distance learning and on-campus learning. We were impressed with our attendance numbers and participation both on campus and online. We are still providing meals daily to our online and on-campus learners and have provided our virtual learners with more than 100 devices.

We are continuing on, navigating this new learning environment in partnership with our school community, our local community and the larger education community nationally. Not only as educators have we overcome adversity, but we have modeled to our students the power of grit, optimism and initiative in navigating their educational journey.

Together, we will continue to work with families and our community to assure we are offering choice to meet the needs of all of our students.

This is the opinion of Randy Vetsch, executive director of Athlos Academy of St. Cloud

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