In March of 2020, metro Atlanta went into lockdown mode. For kids, that meant adjusting to learning virtually. For teachers, it meant flipping things on their head with absolutely no warning. For parents, it meant managing the regular stresses of work and home life with the added pressure of being timekeeper, tech support and assistant teacher. Most of us are very glad school is back in session.

For some, virtual learning worked well. It allowed flexibility of schedules and location, along with more family time. So, now that we are living in a world where virtual school has been a common experience, what did we learn from it? What elements of virtual school will stick even with the majority of kids “back in the building?”

Flexibility

“Being able to attend school while at the beach or in an RV was something we liked about virtual learning,” notes Alpharetta mom Ashley Hake. When her family resumed in-person school in August, she was glad that Fulton County instituted the option for families to take five digital days per semester. “This way, if we want to travel on a non-holiday weekend, we can,” she says.

Schedule Setting

While flexibility is nice, we also learned that kids (and adults) still need basic structure to their days and weeks. Having set schedules sets expectations and helps with time management. For kids, it’s also about knowing that the school day will end and there will be time for fun. So, whether it’s virtual learning or in-person learning, we know that schedules are here to stay!

Teachers are Important

Both in-person and online, teachers are key to successful learning and student development. While parents had to help and be more involved in their children’s education than usual, virtual learning made it very obvious how much teachers do day in and day out. “During the pandemic, teachers worked so hard to be creative and keep students engaged,” says Roni Appleby, a mother of two from Peachtree Corners. “I always appreciated my kids’ teachers, but now I am even more thankful for what they do!”

Technology

It’s 2022, so obviously technology in schools and as part of learning is nothing new, but virtual learning showed us that accessibility to devices is integral for student success, as is age-appropriate mastery of technological tools. “When virtual school started in 2020, my son was a first grader and we had a rough time with signing into class, managing his schedule, turning in work and all of that,” says Dunwoody mom Carey Smith. “I am glad that now, as a third grader, he understands the platforms he needs to use and can manage most of that stuff on his own.” Many metro Atlanta school systems now provide each student with iPads or other devices. The familiarity with technology and being able to interact virtually may also help this generation of students be more prepared for the world of virtually-based jobs that is growing every year.

Asynchronous Learning

This term, which really means independent learning or work, has been used a lot over the past 18 months. While it’s always been an educational strategy, it wasn’t as commonplace, especially with younger students. Virtual school made asynchronous learning a must. “It was not possible to manage teaching every level of student in my class in one large group via Zoom,” says a local second grade teacher. “Creating videos that children could watch on their own time and then complete an assignment became a key tool for me during the pandemic. Now that we are back in the classroom, I really still find value in giving students that independence to problem solve and then circle back with me for the support they may need.”

Embrace Demands

“The pandemic showed that the demand was there for virtual school,” says Ryan Fuller, Director of Cobb Virtual Academy, which has been serving students for 20 years. “No one wanted it to happen all of sudden like it did and across the board people were not prepared for it. However, now that we can continue virtual learning for the families and students that want it at the same quality as in-person learning, it’s great.” Choice is important for students and families, and virtual learning shows that various learning options exist.

Socialization Matters

Virtual school definitely showed us that kids crave being around their peers. “Every morning during virtual school my child’s teacher said hello to every child, and each child got to say good morning to the class,” says Appleby. “I am sure there was a practical reason like taking attendance, but I think the social aspect of it was amazing. You could see the giant smiles on the kids’ faces.”

Be Prepared

We may never be caught as off guard as a society again as we were in 2020, but that doesn’t mean we should get complacent. Many school systems didn’t have enough devices for all students, so the burden fell on families. “All involved parties – students, parents, teachers – need more training on virtual school,” says Fuller. “There are so many positives about what virtual school has to offer, but for so many students it has a negative connotation because it’s connected to the pandemic and the chaos of those first few weeks of lockdown.”

Who knows what the future holds, but with the lessons we have learned from this collective experience, we can come out on top. Looking back, Fuller thinks we will see the pandemic as an inflection point in education and that we were able to move forward thinking more innovatively. Let’s hope he’s right!

-Tali Benjamin

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