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Editor’s note: This article was produced through a partnership between the Bangor Daily News and the Solutions Journalism Network, a national non-profit organization that supports rigorous journalism about solutions to problems.
As most Maine high schoolers are settling into a largely unfamiliar remote learning routine this spring, junior Lance Kelley’s school day has not changed since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The Maine Virtual Academy student still starts school with a morning assembly, attends his classes in live virtual classrooms and moderates his school’s gaming club every week. The only difference is, he can’t leave his Holden residence to see his friends under the state’s stay-at-home order.
Kelley, 17, made the shift to online learning when he finished middle school at Bangor Christian Schools in 2017.
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“I wasn’t a sporty guy. I was one of the nerds. I liked computers, so I was usually on the computer anyway,” he said. “So there isn’t really that much that I miss from brick-and-mortar schools.”
Since the coronavirus pandemic forced learning to go remote, schools across the state have relaxed their grading, focused on helping students maintain skills they have already learned instead of teaching new ones and let students make their own schedules.
But for Maine’s two virtual charter schools, Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy, it’s business as usual. Students are sticking to a daily learning schedule, live classes are still happening on virtual learning platforms and grading standards remain unchanged.
Both schools serve students in seventh through 12th grades, and have about 400 students each.
In addition to online classrooms where students can ask questions of their teachers and interact with peers digitally, the virtual schools offer a full range of courses, including some that rely heavily upon experiential learning, such as physical education and music.
“If any school is ever set up to handle something like this, it is our school,” said Maine Connections Academy Principal Walter Wallace. “Our system was already in place, and our structures and our technology, and we had the expertise built up over the years of doing this. So we feel very fortunate about that for our students.”
Maine Connections Academy opened in the fall of 2014 and Maine Virtual Academy opened a year later.
The largest change from the coronavirus is for teachers who have to work from home instead of an office while balancing their personal lives, including homeschooling their own children, Wallace said. But even those teachers have not had to learn new technology and adapt in-person curriculums to online instruction, as most traditional school teachers have had to do.
Both virtual charter schools have seen an uptick in interest from families reaching out for information. But it’s too early for both schools to say whether the increased interest will translate into more enrolled students come fall.
“The benefit is that students have the same experience as they did before the pandemic,” said Maine Virtual Academy Head of School Melinda Browne. “The fact is that we can as a virtual school go through a lot of different situations whether it’s this or bad weather. As long as our students and families have access to power and the internet, we never close.”
Maine won’t administer standardized exams this spring, but last year, Maine Connections Academy students tended to outperform their peers statewide in English while lagging slightly behind in math. Maine Virtual Academy — with a larger population of low-income students — lagged behind the state in both subject areas.
But both virtual schools are ahead of the rest of the state in another way. While the state plans to invest $9 million in Chromebooks and internet-enabled tablets for about 24,000 students who can’t connect to the internet, both virtual schools already provide students with laptops, and they provide free internet connections for lower-income families.
Continuity in how they learn isn’t the only advantage for which virtual learners and their families are grateful this spring. Students have assigned learning coaches. For Kelley, it’s his mom, Debbie Kelley, who keeps track of his progress and offers help if he needs it. She appreciates the chance to play a larger role in his education.
“I can be there to watch how he is interacting with people and how he’s interacting with the teachers,” Debbie Kelley said. “You’d miss that if you’re not actually in class with your children. You have no idea about all their accomplishments in school, unless a teacher shares that with you.”
The flexibility that online learning can afford students is why Nathan Sykes, 17, decided to switch from Bangor High School to Maine Connections Academy. Sykes started a business called Howdy Interactive when he was 14, and has been involved in speaking engagements and business travel since it has grown. Now he’s finishing his junior year and, at the same time, working on an associate’s degree in business administration at Eastern Maine Community College.
He recommends that students treat their learning at home with the same seriousness as they do at school.
“When you enter a new learning environment, one that gives you significantly more freedom and liberty than a brick-and-mortar high school, it’s very easy to put work aside, not show up for class, and to minimize your participation,” Sykes said. “Obviously, the work still exists, and it will pile up and snowball until it’s out of control. Students should make sure they’re staying up-to-date with the work assigned to them.”
Watch: Raising a blended family during a pandemic