After a steep learning curve to begin the school year, both teachers and families of first-year students at ARISE Virtual Academy say the good outweighs the bad.
The Janesville School District’s online school experienced a boom in enrollment and staff size this school year as COVID-19 fueled uncertainty about students’ safe return to classrooms.
The school currently serves about 2,300 K-12 students, far surpassing last year’s enrollment of 243 students. Teachers have been in high demand as a result: The school has 112 teachers this year, a big jump from the 12 teachers—seven full-time positions—it had last year.
Assistant Principal Jenna Rosienski called teachers the “heart” of success at ARISE this year because the curriculum is the same. She said professional development will be offered throughout the year to help teachers, but early indications are positive.
“I think with any growth like we’ve had in any educational system, you’re going to hear negatives and positives,” Rosienski said. “Our job is to help families navigate that, and I believe we’re doing that.
“From my administrative lens, going from 200 to nearly 3,000 students brings many challenges and obstacles, but I believe we’ve put organizational systems in place to help our students, families and teachers be successful.”
With the growth came challenges for new teachers and new students.
“It’s night and day. It’s two totally different ways of teaching,” said Katie Egger, a teacher of 30 years who is teaching kindergarten at ARISE this year after spending last year at Madison Elementary School.
Egger made the switch to protect some family members who are in the high-risk category for COVID-19. After early difficulties with the platform, technology and finding the best way to communicate with families virtually, Egger said she enjoys every day at ARISE.
Egger begins checking emails each day around 6 a.m. She then does grading and Google Meets with her students to review topics and conduct team-building activities such as sharing. Some days end around 4 p.m. and others at 10 p.m.
“I would love to stay with ARISE,” she said. “I love the relationships that I’m building with the family and the staff members.”
Kayla Silha, also in her first year of teaching at ARISE, has experienced differences, too, but a lot of it depends on how willing a family is to seek extra help.
“It has changed quite a bit,” Silha said of the two teaching experiences. “There’s not as much of that face-to-face time as we’re used to. It’s harder to work with students and make that connection with students. It can sometimes be harder to work with them if they are struggling on a concept or falling behind. But it can also be easier to work with them one-on-one and help them catch up on things, because it’s flexible.”
Silha checks her gradebook each morning and resends work that needs to be done (students at ARISE must score higher than 70% for work to count) before beginning her Google Meets with students.
She loves the opportunity to teach without the risk of virus exposure.
“The start was very tricky, just like anything new. It took awhile to adapt to the learning curve,” she said. “Some parents were pretty frustrated, too, but now that we have it under our belts and we’ve been doing this for awhile now, I love it.”
For the Hedgecock family, the experience was similar.
Laura Hedgecock has two children who pivoted to virtual learning at ARISE this school year. Adele, in kindergarten, and Ava, a second-grader, both took about a month to adjust.
“The first month’s learning curve was challenging to get our schedules figured out and how much learning the girls can do in a day, breaks and all of that,” she said. “But by about mid-October, we got into a groove, and now they’re doing awesome.”
Hedgecock said the biggest challenges were learning how to use technology and learn online, as her daughters had little previous exposure to technology.
The family also took some time to find the right spot in the house to ensure the girls were productive and not distracted.
Adele has a Google Meet with her classmates and teacher around 8 a.m. each day, and Ava has one at 9:30 a.m. The girls work about four days a week with their mom and dad and spend one day with their grandma.
The Hedgecocks switched to ARISE because Laura works as a nurse and understands the gravity of getting COVID-19. Her husband’s parents are in poor health, and the family wanted to ensure they would be cared for and wouldn’t be exposed to the virus by the kids.
That and the uncertainty of school made the decision easy, Hedgecock said.
“Last spring when schools were shut down and we had to go to online learning, I didn’t feel like the girls were challenged by that,” Hedgecock said. “I wanted to make sure that my girls got the best education they could, and I was fearful that when school came back it would be shut down at least once.”
Adele and Ava both said they still enjoy school even when it’s on a computer. Some days are better than others, though.
“It’s not the same,” Ava said. “Kind of difficult and kind of easy.”
Her sister agreed.
“I like my math, and some are easy, some are hard, but I like my quizzes and all of it,” Adele told a reporter.
And while it took a little while to get here, both the Hedgecocks and teachers say the effort was worth it.
“This is a whole other world that I didn’t anticipate my family going through at this point in our lives, but the teachers have been so accessible, and we just love it,” Hedgecock said.
“I’m very happy with our decision on a lot of different fronts. … To be able to sit next to your child when they learn something new for the first time—all parents love that. … To sit there and watch your kindergartner put phonetics together and read words and your second-grader do difficult subtraction problems and see that light bulb go off, it’s very rewarding.”
Silha, the first-year ARISE teacher, agreed.
“I would just say that I am thankful for the opportunity to be able to do this as a community. At first it didn’t seem like the greatest option, but after doing it I truly enjoy my job, and I still feel connected to the kids and families.”
Students, staff and community members will be able to receive COVID-19 test results in 15 minutes on the UW-Whitewater campus starting this week.
The UW System announced last week that universities across the state will receive a total of 250,000 Abbot BinaxNOW COVID-19 tests provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to a news release.
Wisconsin schools were given the testing kits as part of a federal surge testing program, which sends temporary federal support to areas experiencing a spike in novel coronavirus cases, according to the release.
UW-Whitewater will host the testing site, providing facilities and resources to manage the flow of people and traffic. A third-party company contracted with the federal government will administer and process tests, said Matthew Kiederlen, chief of UW-Whitewater campus police.
The Whitewater campus will get 15,000 testing kits. Kiederlen said he expects that to last about five to six weeks.
If some universities have less demand, tests from those campuses could be sent to other campuses with greater demand, Kiederlen said.
Rapid COVID-19 testing is not new, but the Whitewater testing site is the largest, most publicly accessible use of the tests so far locally, said Mark Goelzer, medical director at Mercyhealth.
Hospitals have had limited access to rapid testing for months. The tests have been used so health care professionals can better determine which area of the hospital a person needs to be treated in, Goelzer said.
For example, a patient might come to the hospital with symptoms of another disease, but doctors need to know if that person has the coronavirus as well so the patient can be properly isolated.
Rapid testing is not yet widely available because of production slowdowns, Goelzer said.
The tests are less accurate than the traditional PCR tests that are more widely available, he said, but added that no test is 100% accurate.
Some fail-safe measures have been put in place to counteract the reduction in accuracy.
Those who test positive with a rapid test immediately will be directed on-site to get a traditional test. Those people will be required to quarantine while awaiting results of the second test and will receive guidance from health officials, Kiederlen said.
Those who test negative with a rapid test but are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms also will be directed to get a traditional test and required to quarantine while they wait.
Receiving results quickly is key to helping control the pandemic because it allows people to quarantine sooner and prevents them from spreading the disease to others, Goelzer said.
Coronavirus cases have been surging throughout the state since early September. Wisconsin had a record day Saturday of 7,065 new cases, the first time the state has seen 7,000 cases in one day, according to the state health department.
Goelzer said people need to take mask wearing, social distancing and staying home seriously.
Kiederlen said the testing site will be set up so students and staff who use the Williams Center won’t have to worry about coming into contact with those who are getting tested and could be contagious.
Testing will be available in the volleyball gym on the first floor, which has a direct-access door that people will be directed to for testing, Kiederlen said.
The university chose to host the site indoors rather than as a drive-thru because of winter weather and the possibility for snow, ice and sleet, which could harm operations, Kiederlen said.
Pre-registration will be required to ensure the test site runs smoothly. People can register online at doineed acovid19test.com.
Students are encouraged to continue getting tested at the university’s health center for free so more resources will be available to the community, Kiederlen said.