Lakota’s virtual academy became a 24th school during the COVID-19 pandemic. What comes next?

Lakota Schools' 1st grade Christa MacFarlane has converted her home into a digital learning center as part of the district's Virtual Learning Option (VLO). MacFarlane says the online program, which was forced by the coronavirus this school year, is different from in-person instruction but can keep students on track academically. (Provided Photo\Journal-News)
Lakota Schools' 1st grade Christa MacFarlane has converted her home into a digital learning center as part of the district's Virtual Learning Option (VLO). MacFarlane says the online program, which was forced by the coronavirus this school year, is different from in-person instruction but can keep students on track academically. (Provided Photo\Journal-News)

Lakota Schools created an online school that enrolled thousands last year, and officials now say the district’s first Virtual Learning Option will continue into next school year.

The VLO program was caused in part by the hasty scramble Lakota and other school systems had to perform when all Ohio K-12 schools were ordered shuttered in March 2020 due to the onset of the coronavirus.

ExploreOne Lakota teacher’s experience in virtual learning during coronavirus

Over the summer Lakota put together its at-home learning instruction program for the current school year unlike some area districts, which contracted out for their virtual learning programs.

By the time classes started in August, Lakota had basically created a new school with an enrollment of more than 4,000 VLO students, said Betsy Fuller, spokeswoman for 16,800-student school system.

“Lakota’s Virtual Learning Option has essentially become our 24th school this year,” said Fuller.

ExploreLakota unveils plans for helping lagging students affected by COVID-19 changes

“Throughout the summer, some of Lakota’s best teachers collaborated with the district’s curriculum team to design the best courses possible for students. These model courses have also been made available for our in-person teachers as well. With the exception of some secondary classes, all of the courses have been designed by our teachers.”

Keith Koehne, Lakota’s executive director for curriculum & instruction, said “no one else was doing something like this. Most school districts go out and purchase third-party software. Our VLO is tied directly to district resources and Lakota curriculum.”

“An added benefit to our teachers designing the courses is that all of our teachers have access to them. They can be used to supplement lessons for in-person instruction and also serve as an invaluable resource for our first-year teachers,” said Koehne.

VLO enrollment dropped off at the beginning of the second semester in January as Lakota continued its year-long practice of offering live classes. The program will continued to be offered in the 2021-22 school year.

But Christa MacFarlane, a first-grade teacher at Liberty Early Childhood Center, said the challenges of teaching online to kids each school day were daunting at first.

“How do I build a relationship with a first grader through a screen?” MacFarlane asked herself at the beginning of the school year. “And obviously the technology piece of this for our young learners was a concern and whether they have the support at home to help them through that.

“There was a learning curve for all of us (VLO teachers).”

You create an online relationship the same way you do in a live classroom, she said, “by opening up your heart and your lives to each other even though it’s through the screen.”

“We can’t just reach out and hug one another,” she said.

Lakota West Freshman School student Emma Cupito said the VLO and its freedom to learn outside the traditional hours has allowed her to thrive.

“I love having my own schedule and doing my (school) work whenever I want,” said Cupito. “I have a lot less school-related stress. Sometimes it can be hard to learn over Zoom calls but I haven’t had any major problems … and with all the resources my district gives me I haven’t had problems.”