Konnor Fink, an eighth-grader enrolled in the ARISE Virtual Academy, an online learning option available to Janesville students for the past 15 years, has not been in a “traditional” school program since he started taking advanced math classes in third grade.

Bored with the slow pace of the in-person curriculum, Fink was deemed a talented gifted student. But Fink was also the target of bullies.

“Kids can be really mean,” said Erin Colson, Fink’s mother. “I pulled him out of traditional school in third grade when it became clear that the school was no longer a safe space for Konnor.”

Colson home-schooled Fink for two-and-a-half years before enrolling him as a sixth-grader in ARISE. Her son is able to work independently without constantly feeling threatened.

Prior to the pandemic, Fink went to the ARISE Lab located in Franklin Middle School once or twice a week. There he made friends in the Dungeons & Dragons club and went on field trips.

“I don’t think Konnor had referred to any student being his friend before then,” Colson said. “What they have built over there is something amazing for kids like Konnor who don’t always feel like they fit in.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic put nearly everyone’s life on pause in 2020, schools had to pivot quickly to serve students on lockdown in their homes. Since then, the majority of young people have returned to their brick-and-mortar schools, albeit masked.

Yet some semblance of the virtual learning programs that the schools set up remain for kids who, for a variety of reasons, still wish to take classes online.

In Janesville and Milton, the majority of students logged into an online platform for most of 2020. Fortunately, the Janesville School District already had ARISE in place.

“We’ve always had a virtual charter school where all our students have access,” said Allison Degraaf, director of learning and innovation at the Janesville School District. “Last year, prior to the start of the school year, we had about 2,500 students enrolled in ARISE.”

This is in comparison to the 250 to 300 students per year who typically utilized ARISE before the pandemic.

Virtual offerings retooled

A couple years ago, a virtual charter school was established for the Milton School District. This was also before the pandemic hit.

“We found that we had students leaving our district to seek out a virtual experience,” said Tara Huber, principal at Milton Edgerton Community Alternative School. “We added JEDI (an online learning charter school) and this is our third year of having a contract with JEDI.”

Milton school officials realized quickly that JEDI didn’t meet the needs of some students, and that the cost of the program was too high for some families.

After further discussion, the Milton Wired program was created by Huber and teacher Matt Smith. The program is a fully digital learning option for students in seventh through 12th grade.

Seventh-grader Daniel Olsen decided to stick with online learning last year when students had the choice to return to in-person learning or stay virtual.

“I ended up choosing to stay virtual,” Olsen said.

Olsen said the Milton Wired program is better organized this year. He said he can find all of his assignments in one place “instead of across 30 different programs” like last year.

Now homework assignments “just take half the time for me,” he said.

There is also one teacher for all the Milton Wired students, which further streamlines the program.

The Milton Wired program currently has about 60 students in seventh through 12th grade. Students in kindergarten through sixth grade may use JEDI if they are interested in learning virtually.

“We are giving our families the choice based on how their student learns best, but we recognize the importance of making connections and building relationships with teachers,” said Ryan Ruggles, director of curriculum and instruction for the Milton School District. “With that in mind, we are developing a plan for all of our 6K virtual learners to maintain a connection with each of their home buildings.”

The reasons Milton students are now choosing online learning over in-person instruction are varied. Some are going the virtual route to lessen the likelihood the students will carry the coronavirus from school home to their families.

“We’ve only got a few because of the mask switch” to mandatory use, Huber said. “With most students, it’s because they just enjoyed it and were successful with virtual learning last year.”

Best of both learning worlds

Some Milton students have chosen a hybrid option, which allows them to be both virtual and in-person this upcoming trimester.

“We do have a handful of kids that have chosen that, who are here in person for math electives or whatever they want to be inperson for,” Huber said.

One student who chose the hybrid option for this school is Aurora Dull, a sophomore in the Milton School District. Dull chose the hybrid option after realizing that long lectures do not fit her learning style.

“I was better off working on my own,” Dull said. “With online learning, it gives me the ability to read the book and do the assignment without having to wait on anyone else.”

On the other hand, Dull said she enjoys going to school for some of her “hands-on” classes such as theater and art.

In the Janesville School District, most students are back for in-person learning this fall. However, some students have selected a virtual or hybrid option. Through ARISE, those who choose online learning can view classes live, especially in core areas such as reading and math. Janesville schools have recently adjusted the virtual curriculum at ARISE to align it more with state standards.

Prior to COVID-19, 2% to 3% of students were enrolled in ARISE. It is now back to that percentage of students this 2021-22 school year.

Many students have a variety of reasons for choosing virtual learning.

“It could be that they work better in an online environment, self-paced and have support at home,” Degraaf said. “It could be they prefer to have a mask or don’t have a mask or that’s just the type of instruction that they feel is best for their child and learning environment. We can’t say that there’s one specific reason families choose that.”

Other ARISE students have found success in the online format, including Naleighna Clark and Tanya Allen.

Clark is a recent graduate of the high school program at ARISE. Using the program, she was able to graduate in August—a year early. This month she started pursuing cosmetology at Tricoci University of Beauty Culture in Janesville.

“I was able to get more financial aid since I’m younger,” Clark said.

Allen is currently in 10th grade in the ARISE program. It was her parents who decided to have her continue her schooling online.

“They just thought it was better for my grades so I could stay focused on school,” Allen said. “About halfway through seventh grade, I made the switch.”

For Allen, the one-on-one interaction with teachers has had an impact.

“They have to teach differently than a public teacher would,” she said. “A lot of teachers will sit with you in Google Meets for an hour if you really need the help.”

The decision by Janesville School Board on Aug. 24 in favor of mandatory masking for all students and staff did not result in a spike in students and families signing up for online learning. Degraaf said the district saw some students transition to virtual learning, but no more than was typical prepandemic.

A hybrid approach is also possible for students who want to be in some actual classrooms online but pursue other interests independently and at their own pace.

“Together we develop a schedule for the students,” Degraaf said. “Some students may be 50% virtual and 50% face to face. Or they may want to do their literacy and math online and attend their physical education, music or welding class at the school. They create the schedule together with the student and family.”

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