Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced students from private and public schools and colleges across the United States to take classes online, educators in the Tri-Cities region believe online learning is here to stay far beyond the pandemic.
Colleges and schools have, over the course of the pandemic, gone through multiple phases, from shifting all their classes online to dealing with Zoom fatigue to gradually easing students back into classrooms. But faculty from various colleges and schools in the Tri-Cities agree online learning will now become a permanent part of the educational repertoire.
Keith Perrigan, the Bristol, Virginia public schools superintendent, explained that due to concerns about the safety and health of their kids Bristol, Virginia was one of the first school divisions in Southwest Virginia that, after finishing the 2020 school year with online learning, opened for in-person attendance in August of 2021.
“The only time that we shut down and went completely virtual was in March of 2020 when the governor made us. As soon as we had the opportunity, we fought that whole summer to get Richmond to allow us to come in person,” Perrigan said. “We knew that we were having more kids who were being abused at home. We knew we were having kids that were missing meals. We knew the kids were missing the behavior and mental health services that we provide in our schools.”
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Perrigan recalled how once the first summer of the pandemic passed, and students in his division were allowed back into their classrooms in August of 2020, teachers found it difficult to teach both the students in their classrooms and the students who continued to learn online.
“Our teachers in year one of the pandemic, they might have 17 kids in person and three other kids online, and so they were teaching both worlds. I’m telling you it about killed our staff. I mean, trying to do both was almost impossible,” Perrigan said.
In an effort to relieve some of the stress placed on their teachers and staff, Perrigan and his fellow superintendents from the other divisions across Southwest Virginia came together and decided to create the Region Seven Virtual Academy, where students who chose to continue taking classes online could continue their education.
“We’ve also some students who had chosen to be homeschooled before who came back to public schools because they can choose this virtual environment. So even though the pandemic has really put us through a wrench in a lot of things that we do, it’s really opened up a lot of other opportunities.”
In the second year of the pandemic, once online learning became optional, only 5% of Bristol, Virginia parents opted to keep their students online.
Perrigan considers online learning not ideal for most K-12 students. However, he believes that the Region Seven Virtual Academy has been worth it because it has allowed the students who have struggled in an in-person environment in the past, to thrive.
“We believe that the very best education a kid can get is in an in-person environment, where teachers can build relationships with students, and they can pick up on those clues as to whether a student is getting it or whether a student is stuck. However, we’ve had some students that have truly thrived (online). We’ve had students who have done so well in an online environment that they’ve gotten ahead of where they should have been and actually are ready to graduate early,” Perrigan said.
Online learning during the COVID pandemic has played out differently at the university level in the region, where a lot of the institutions of higher learning, such as Virginia Highlands Community College, King University and UVa-Wise, already offered its students, to varying degrees, the option of online learning.
Ken Fairbanks, director of the Virginia Highlands Community College (VHCC) Learning Resources Center, believes community colleges across the nation, but particularly in Virginia, were better prepared to meet the COVID pandemic shift because of their relationship with online learning, which goes as far back as the 1990s.
“The good news for us as community colleges is that we had a group of faculty, especially our full time and some of our part-time faculty, who had years of experience of teaching online and so that made that transition easier for us, than it probably was for our K-12 partners, or even for our four-year partners,” Fairbanks said.
During the early days of the pandemic, in anticipation of the growing needs of its community, VHCC equipped all of its classrooms with cameras and microphones. That made it possible for professors to teach classes via videoconferencing to remote students, as well as in-person students.
“If a student in the middle of the semester had a brother, a sister, a mom, a dad, get COVID, instead of having to drop out of school, having to just throw in the towel and call it quits … all they had to do is notify their instructor. Their instructor could turn on the camera and the microphone, and they would continue to do their lectures,” Fairbanks said.
In the case of King University, Matt Roberts, the provost and director of academic affairs, highlighted that King has for the past 10 years offered online degree programs and that similar to the case of VHCC, a significant amount of King’s faculty already had an understanding of online teaching.
“We have full online programs, not just a smattering of courses, but whole programs that you can (take), and in our full-time faculty, many of them have come to experience teaching, at least in some aspect, some online programming, so we weren’t starting from scratch,” Roberts said.
King University came up with its own version of flex tech rooms, relying on Owl cameras that rotate 360 degrees and allow for professors to give their classes to both in-person students and remote students. Roberts believes that there has been a permanent shift in the perception of online learning and highlighted that King is now in the process of testing a hybrid online graduate program structure.
“The high flex model that we’re embracing gives students three options,” Roberts said while explaining students could go to class in person, watch the class remotely online as it happens or watch a recording of the lecture at a later time.
In the case of UVa-Wise, Alex Reynolds, the coordinator of instructional technology, spoke about how since the return of students to campus, the focus of faculty has been on meeting the needs of their diverse student body, which have only grown over the course of the pandemic.
“We have a lot of different kinds of students. We have a lot of first-generation students. We have a lot of nontraditional students. They might be older, have a family, have a full-time job,” Reynolds said. “We definitely were very sensitive to the fact that some students just weren’t going to be able to manage online learning with their current technology. And so, we’re very quick to go in and say, ‘Hey, what do you need? How can we get it, and then how can we get it to you?’ And so we have several students who were able to stay enrolled and keep taking their classes.”