Multiple parents who transferred their kids into the Hillsboro Online Academy this year after years of traditional school have told fifth-grade teacher Yvonne Norman that they plan to keep their students at the school even after the coronavirus pandemic is under control.
Data from across the state shows enrollment at both previously established and new district-run alternative online programs is booming, as traditional schools have transitioned to remote learning due to the pandemic.
The Hillsboro Online Academy is no exception.
This year's enrollment at Hillsboro Online Academy, which has operated Oregon's first public, non-charter online school since 2012, is 1,147 — nearly 10 times the enrollment of previous years, enrollment data show.
Principal Linda Harrington said after the Hillsboro School District opted to implement comprehensive distance learning for all students this summer, many parents wanted to enroll their kids in a virtual program that has been established for years.
Harrington said she watched the transfer requests from across the district steadily increase throughout the summer, and the district continued to add teachers and other staff proportionally.
Most parents said they wanted to transfer their students for COVID-19-related reasons. Many stated specific health concerns, such as a family member having a compromised immune system.
"'COVID-19,' sometimes that's all they wrote. 'COVID,'" Harrington said.
She said a school that was initially created as an option for a wide range of students, including those with special health needs or those whose families homeschool or travel a lot, occupies a new role in the community.
The school uses curriculum from multiple virtual school providers. Its core curriculum is provided by Florida Virtual School, which was created in 1997.
Somewhat counterintuitively, considering its name and function, Hillsboro Online Academy operates out of the Peter Boscow Conference Center, a building located on the corner of Northeast Third Avenue and Grant Street in Hillsboro that includes a gymnasium built in the 1940s, a playground and a baseball field.
In typical years, the building would be used for some in-person instruction, or for students to take physical education as many as four times per week.
"It was simply to be an option for families who maybe just were looking for something else," Harrington said.
Now that the building is largely empty, Harrington said teachers and staff miss their students. But teachers and staff continue to run the online school from the building, and parents frequently come to pick up assignments for their kids.
"We have delightful families, wonderful families. They're very understanding as we all go through this," Harrington said, adding that new statewide education requirements have brought new changes to Hillsboro Online Academy this year, including the way teachers take attendance.
Previously, virtual schools only had to take attendance twice per week, but now it's required daily at the primary school level — and for each period at the secondary level.
Norman said after years of teaching at brick-and-mortar schools in the area in various capacities, her first year at Hillsboro Online Academy is going very well.
"I love the flexibility," Norman said. "I love it because I can see what it does for families. It's a school that allows families to put themselves first and it's like we're coming alongside of them to help their child learn and get what they need."
She said one benefit for her is that it allows her to spend more time thinking about how to help students with their work rather than managing a class.
Norman said she would have never been able to have more than 50 students in a class at a traditional school, but that's the size of her fifth-grade class this year.
Both Norman and Harrington recognize the school isn't for everyone, however.
There's inherently less social-emotional learning — something particularly young students are struggling with this year — but teachers at Hillsboro Online Academy have always created opportunities for synchronous activities with students, Harrington said.
"By no means are we perfect," Harrington said. "We've had people join and it just didn't work out because it wasn't what they thought, but we have a lot of other people who are super-happy."
She said she knows many parents are finding it hard to guide their students through online learning.
Coming to pick up an assignment packet for his first-grade student at the school one recent morning, Corey Mackura said this year has been challenging.
"You have to hold their hand every step of the way," Mackura said. "We're full-time working parents, and then we have to be teachers as well, which is very difficult."
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