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Chris Long, principal of Willamette Connections Academy in Scio, says the COVID-19 shutdown provides valuable insight.

CHRIS LONGThis past year has been a game changer in the world of education. We should reflect back when Gov. Kate Brown closed in-person schools nearly a year ago to stop the COVID-19 virus spread. Oregon students not only used distance learning throughout the pandemic, but also during record wildfires and winter storms.

Traditional schools should be applauded for quickly implementing and evolving emergency distance learning over the last year. Large-scale change overnight is never easy, especially when prompted by a crisis. As a full-time online school leader I know the high-quality educational experience that Connections Academy provides was built specifically for the virtual environment. We are among several online public schools operating in Oregon for many years.

What lessons have educators learned from the pandemic era? What improvements will go forward?

Even though it's been a challenging time for many students and teachers, I'm grateful for our modern-day school system. When education was interrupted during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the virus was deadlier for kids under 5 years old. U.S. schools closed for four months. Without computers, students read books or wrote journals.

In 1937, teachers used remote learning for the first time during the Chicago polio outbreak, creating on-air lessons so 300,000 students could continue their education through "radio school."

When leaders at brick-and-mortar schools were forced to make the pandemic pivot to distance learning last year, teachable moments were created. During a recent public forum, said Gresham-Barlow School District Superintendent Katrise Perera. "I never want to waste a good crisis to improve on some things," which includes ensuring students have access to technology.

Reports of children falling behind in brick-and-mortar online classes are disappointing because in established online learning programs, students access curriculum designed to be delivered virtually and receive personal attention from specially trained teachers to motivate and engage them. The good news is more parents are seeing those "light-bulb" moments in their child's education as their students learn from home. The pandemic will reshape how teachers connect with students, whether it's in-person, online or using a hybrid approach.

Social isolation is another challenge school districts have to overcome. A high-quality online school provides opportunities for students to socialize virtually, participate in clubs, and in non-COVID times, attend in-person field trips. During this last year, many students have socialized and learned in more creative ways than ever.

While most students will return to in-person learning after the pandemic, a percentage will choose virtual instruction.

Demand for high-quality education in a safe virtual learning environment is getting stronger as more families realize school is not a building, it's a place where children learn. More school districts also recognize that and are establishing their own virtual education programs.

This is a time to reflect and celebrate the positive changes in education. Expanding access to high-quality online options is a worthwhile effort and I look forward to making that happen for Oregon students in the future.

Chris Long is principal of Willamette Connections Academy in Scio.

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