As the clock ticks at around 8:30 a.m., 10 faces appear on teacher Kim Hill’s screen – a constellation of online learners. Most are in Rochester, but some are scattered throughout Minnesota.
Hill greets her students personally: “Good morning, my dears. Very happy to see you all,” she said. “You make my day.”
These students are members of the Online Chargers, a new 330-student K-12 school in the Rochester School District. Instead of checking into a conventional classroom every day, they boot up their computers for real-time learning. Everything from math to reading, music and physical education is built into their day.
The online school began as a pandemic-related experiment – a result of distance learning that began in March 2020.
That model was hardly perfect, but it did show that some kids do really well when it comes to online learning, said Chargers principal Brandon Macrafic.
“A lot of students and families are looking for — they’re looking for the right learning environment in which they can be successful — for some students who might have struggled in personal school,” he said.
Rochester’s online program is now in its second year. It is open to students anywhere in Minnesota. The district even signed an agreement with the Winona School District this summer to host its online students.
According to Macrafic, the introduction of an online learning program for the district has also helped offset the loss of around 600 students to homeschooling, private schools or other districts during the pandemic.
“We want to differentiate from this distance learning experience, take the best parts of it but then build on it,” he said.
Students and their families choose online school for a variety of reasons, Macrafic said.
Some are still looking for extra protection from COVID. Some focus better at home.
Some are less anxious in a virtual class.
Online learning looks very different from March 2020, Macrafic said. There’s more community built in, with clubs, a student council – all the trappings of personal learning.
For 10-year-old Lauren Klein, all of these extra activities made online learning really fun. Klein, who returned to personal study for the 5th grade, served as student council president.
She said she didn’t feel like she missed out on much socializing.
“During breaks, you could attend a separate meeting and chat with your friends, even during lunch breaks,” she said.
And getting ready in the morning was easier too. “You don’t have to pack a backpack and be like, ‘Oh, I forgot my backpack,'” she said. “They encourage you to get ready — get dressed so you can feel more fulfilled during the day instead of just sitting around in your pajamas.”
Another hallmark of Rochester’s online school is that learning occurs in real time, Macrafic said.
That’s a big reason why teacher Kim Hill decided to switch from face-to-face classes.
“If it had been asynchronous — push a button on a computer to send lessons, the kids send it in, you correct it and send it back — that’s not my problem.”
Her jam, Hill said, is relationships — and she was surprised at how easily they develop, even with a screen between her and her students.
“You know, every day [students know] “I go to my teacher, I can ask questions to my teacher, I can contribute. It really helps build that relationship,” she said.
For Hill, online learning is not without its challenges. The most important thing is to ensure that all of their children have strong enough internet access to participate.
And sometimes she misses being able to lean over a student and help them with an assignment. With school district investment, the new technology allows her to edit or edit documents with kids while they complete assignments, but it’s not quite the same, she said.
Still, she said it’s very different from the chaos of online learning in the early days of the pandemic.
“We really found our groove and are a fully functioning public school that we can accept kids from anywhere in the state of Minnesota,” she said.
More suitable for family
Across town, Hill’s fifth grader Izzy Becker and siblings Spenser and Sydney finish their lunch between classes.
Meeting fellow students was easy, Izzy said.
“What I like best about learning online is that it’s easier to check my friends’ emails,” said Izzy.
A smaller class size is also a big advantage, third-grader Spenser said. Last year, one of Spenser’s classmates spent an extended period in Iraq and gave Spenser a glimpse of a different way of life.
“We found out that they have different money than we do. And I think there’s something like the $1,000 bill, which I don’t think is the case here,” Spenser said.
First grader Sydney doesn’t have enough social time.
“I can’t hang out with my friends unless we’re in a meeting,” she said. She misses a friend she met online in kindergarten, and she said another best friend will be going to school in person this year.
But for Izzy, Spenser and Sydney’s mother Miri Levi, online learning is probably for their family.
At first, online learning was a way to protect her children from contracting COVID-19 before vaccines were available, she said.
Now it just suits her family better.
“It gave each child the opportunity to progress at their own pace. And they could get involved in new types of projects. And we had a lot more extra time with them,” she said.
Some added bonuses: Your kids have learned a ton of organizational skills – like managing their own calendars, showing up to their reunions on time, and making their own lunches.
“They get one-on-one lessons with their teacher almost every week, in really small groups where the teacher isn’t distracted by a bunch of other kids in the classroom,” Levi said. “It’s something you would basically never get to see in person,” she said.
For teacher Kim Hill, who has been in her career for decades, switching to online learning has reinvigorated her passion for teaching. It’s not for everyone, she said. But for some students, it’s just the ticket.
“I’ve found a niche, I’ve found a place where I can really be of service,” she said. “Because I’m doing something for some kids that needed it and needed to be seen.”