As the clock ticks toward 8:30 a.m., 10 faces pop up on teacher Kim Hill's screen — a constellation of online learners. Most are in Rochester but some are scattered across Minnesota.
Hill greets her students just as she would in person: “Good morning, my darlings. I am so happy to see you all,” she said. “You guys make my day.”
These students are members of the Online Chargers, a new 330-student K-12 school in the Rochester school district. Instead of reporting to a brick and mortar classroom every day, they fire up their computers for real-time learning. Everything from math, to reading, music and physical education is baked into their day.
The online school started as a pandemic-related experiment — an outgrowth of distance learning that started in March 2020.
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That model was hardly perfect, but it did reveal that some kids do really well with online learning, said Chargers Principal Brandon Macrafic.
"A lot of students and families, they're searching — they're searching for that right learning environment, where they can be successful — some students who maybe were struggling in the in-person school,” he said.
Rochester's online program is now in its second year. It’s open to students anywhere in Minnesota. The district even signed an agreement with the Winona school district this summer to take its online students.
Macrafic says for the district, adopting an online learning program has also helped make up for losing some 600 students during the pandemic to homeschooling, private school or other districts.
"We are looking to differentiate ourselves from that distance learning experience, take the best parts of it, but then build upon that,” he said.
Focus on community
Students and their families choose online school for a host of reasons, Macrafic said.
Some are still looking for extra protection from COVID. Some focus better at home. Some are less anxious in a virtual class.
Online learning looks a lot different than it did in March 2020, said Macrafic. There's more community built in, with clubs, a student council — all the trappings of in-person learning.
For 10-year-old Lauren Klein, all those extra activities made online learning really fun. Klein, who headed back to in-person learning for 5th grade, was student council president.
She said she didn’t feel like she missed out much on socializing.
“During the breaks, you could join a separate meeting and talk to your friends, also during lunch breaks,” she said.
And getting ready in the morning was easier, too. “You don't have to pack a backpack and be like ‘Oh, I forgot my backpack,’” she said. “They encourage you to get ready — get dressed so you feel more fulfilled during the day, instead of just sitting there in your pajamas.”
Another hallmark of Rochester’s online school is that learning is happening in real-time, said Macrafic.
That’s a big reason teacher Kim Hill decided to switch from in-person teaching.
“If it had been asynchronous — press a button on a computer to send out lessons, the kids send it in, you correct it and send it back — that's not my jam.”
Her jam, Hill said, is relationships — and she's been surprised by how easy they are to develop even with a screen between her and her students.
“You know, every day, [students know] ‘I'm going to see my teacher, I can ask questions to my teacher, I can give my input.’ It helps really build that relationship,” she said.
For Hill, online learning isn't without challenges. The biggest is making sure all her kids have strong enough Internet access to participate.
And she sometimes misses being able to lean over a student and help them with an assignment. With investments from the school district, new technology allows her to edit or work on documents with kids as they do assignments, but it's not quite the same thing, she said.
Still, she said it’s very different from the chaos of online learning in the early days of the pandemic.
“We've really found our groove and we are a full functioning public school where we can take kids from anywhere in the state of Minnesota,” she said.
Better fit for the family
Across town, Hill’s fifth-grade student Izzy Becker and siblings Spenser and Sydney are finishing up lunch between classes.
Getting to know fellow students has been easy, Izzy said.
“My favorite thing about online learning is that it's easier to get friend's emails,” Izzy said.
A smaller class size is a big benefit, too, said third-grader Spenser. Last year, one of Spenser's classmates spent an extended period of time in Iraq, giving Spenser a glimpse into another way of living.
“We found out they've got different money than we do. And I think there's such a thing as the $1,000 bill, which I don't think is the thing here,” Spenser said.
For first grader Sydney, there’s not quite enough social time.
“I don’t get to hang out with my friends when we aren’t in a meeting,” she said. She misses a friend she met online in kindergarten, and she said another best friend is going to school in-person this year.
But for Izzy, Spenser and Sydney’s mom, Miri Levi, online learning is probably here to stay for their family.
At first online learning was a way to protect her kids from getting COVID-19 before vaccines were available, she said.
Now, it's just a better fit for their family.
“It gave each of the kids an opportunity to kind of move forward at their own pace. And they could engage in new types of projects. And we had a lot more extra time with them,” she said.
Some added bonuses: Her kids have learned a host of organizational skills — like managing their own calendars, getting to their classroom meetings on time and making their own lunches.
“They get actual one-on-one time with their teacher almost every week, in really small group classes where the teacher is not distracted by a bunch of other kids in the classroom,” said Levi. “It’s something you basically would never get in person,” she said.
For teacher Kim Hill, who's decades into her career, the switch to online learning has reinvigorated her passion for teaching. It's not for everyone, she said. But for some students, it’s just right.
“I found a niche, I found a place where I can really be of service,” she said. “Because I'm doing something for some kids that needed that and needed to be seen.”