Online learning in Iowa City is poised to survive COVID-19

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Although he teaches in an online school, Michael Dankert’s voice is not pre-recorded or hidden behind a computer screen.

On Friday morning, he co-taught a live math class for seventh and eighth graders from his office in the old Hoover Elementary building in Iowa City.

Keeping kids engaged can be a challenge in an online environment, he said. It’s not like being in a physical room, where a student can only say “pass” or “I don’t know” so many times before they have to participate.

But “Mr. Dankert,” who also works with students in the special education program, says he doesn’t “underestimate the importance of the relationship.” He’s willing to put in the time to connect with the students, whether it’s talking about Marvel comics or Star Wars.

“We just talk about what’s going on in their world,” he said. “They love showing me their dogs… (for) pretty much everyone, if they have a dog, I see the dog.”

ICCSD Online is in its first year of operation as its own school within the Iowa City Community School District. After fluctuations in enrollment due to the coronavirus pandemic, 668 students were attending school virtually at the end of January — 4.6% of all students in Iowa’s fifth-largest district.

Luke Dillon, director of the online school, takes part in a virtual meeting on Friday.  Enrollment at the school fluctuates, but sits at around 700 students these days.

That’s even after a drop in enrollment after COVID-19 vaccines were made available for people aged 5 to 11 in early November.

Before the start of the school year, principal Luke Dillon said there were about 350 students enrolled. Then the Delta variant hit, the district extended the online school enrollment period, and the number soared to about 850 students within weeks. Many of them were in primary school.

The numbers changed again as younger students returned to in-person learning, which was no longer held back by the vaccine.

“The elemental number that came back was what I expected,” Dillon said in an interview Tuesday. “What I didn’t anticipate was that our secondary numbers actually went up; (they) probably went up about 80.”

Changing enrollments have presented challenges with staff movement and hiring, Dillon said earlier this year.

“If you take 15 kids from every high school level and put them into online learning, it doesn’t really make a dent in their school population,” he said. “But once you started compiling all the different grades and the different needs of each student, it really created some challenges. But our district answered the call.”

Still, Dillon said the program was different from what many Iowa students associate with online education. The majority of classes are “synchronous”, meaning they have a live teacher.

“I know for a fact that we’re going to do some things a little differently; I think we’re going to get kids from across the state who are going to really like that option,” he said last fall.

As of the end of last month, 50 students were open to ICCSD Online from other parts of the state. Last fall, much of the interest came from students in the nearby Clear Creek Amana district. The online school will increase the Iowa City District’s total certified enrollment and the resulting state funding. The district saw a drop in enrollment of 288 students in 2020-21.

Iowa City was among 20 districts in Iowa that received accreditation for an online-only school after the pandemic hit, according to the most recent state data available. ICCSD administrators had launched plans for a virtual school before the pandemic, but it did not come to fruition.

Before COVID-19, there were only three virtual school options in Iowa.

Following:‘This is the future’: 16 new virtual public schools approved last year to operate in Iowa; the pandemic is accelerating growth

Teacher Leah White works during a planning period between classes in the ICCSD online program on Friday.  White thinks online school is helpful for students who suffer from social anxiety.

Leah White, another ICCSD Online teacher, said in an interview on Friday that she initially thought school enrollments were mostly related to the pandemic.

“But now I think it’s growing just because of its flexibility,” she continued. “I think a lot of people are realizing that this is going to be the ‘new way’. With online colleges and all that, I think it’s really starting to prepare kids; it’s going to be one of the new options.”

“Ms. White” splits her time 60/40 between in-person and online classes teaching family and consumer science. Working with high school and seventh graders, she covers topics such as housing and interior design, child development and a class called On Your Own which she says is “essentially adult-101”.

White plays games, uses “get to know yourself” exercises and holds office hours to connect with his students online. The class will never meet at the same time, in person.

“I think a lot of kids who have social anxiety, it’s really beneficial for them. They really seem to thrive in that environment,” she said. “A lot of kids like it, you know, just because they can be in their pajamas at school.”

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