OREGON — In times of tragedy or adversity, sometimes you have to dig a bit deeper to find the lemons.
As public schools statewide begin to implement a number of remote educational services to their students amid the state ordered coronavirus-related shutdowns, Oregon Connections Academy High School Principal Todd Schweitzer said now is the time to turn those lemons into lemonade.
“If you look at the positive side of anything I think (the order requiring schools to close) has forced the (Oregon) Department of Education to rethink the value of online education,” said Schweitzer.
Last month, as a way to stop and slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered that all public schools in the state close its doors and classrooms until April 28.
Recently, schools were directed to provide distance learning opportunities or supplemental education to their students beginning April 13 as state officials anticipate schools being closed through the end of the academic year.
Unsure at first whether or not virtual or online schools were also mandated to close, Schweitzer said its independent, nonprofit board of directors sought clarity from the state as to how the recent order would impact its day-to-day operations.
“As of now the online charter schools can operate as normal,” said Schweitzer. “… Right now we’re back on. We don’t need to offer the supplemental education learning supports like the state initially said and we’re just moving back to regular business as far as educating students in an online format which is what we have always done.”
Since 2005, ORCA, a tuition-free public online school serving students in grades K-12, has offered students throughout Oregon an at home curriculum that’s both diverse and flexible to meet the needs of each individual student, said Schweitzer.
ORCA provides students with a variety of virtual learning platforms which allows them to access 24/7 their lesson plans, assignments, homework and other curriculum-related material. Students are also to connect with other students and their teachers in live work sessions via video conferencing.
While the closures have forced state officials to again re-think online education and schools throughout the state prepare to go virtual, Schweitzer said it’s important to note that online learning isn’t the answer to education as a whole and should be seen as a valued option for parents and students.
“I believe in the (school) buildings and I believe kids need that too,” said Schweitzer. “I have three kids, one went to online, the other two went to (school) buildings because that’s what that student needs for whatever reason to be successful.”
Also outlined in the governor’s order, public schools were told to stop enrolling new students at least until the statewide closures were lifted. Again, unsure how this applied to virtual schools Schweitzer said once more ORCA sought guidance from the state.
According to Schweitzer, as of Friday, April 3, ORCA is still waiting for further clarification from the Oregon Department of Education to see if changes have made in regards to enrollment and whether or not it can accept new students or even withdraw students at this point.
According to the Oregon Department of Education’s website, schools are still able to serve all students enrolled prior to March 27. According to Schweitzer, under normal circumstances enrollment climbs up each year for virtual school, but under these circumstances it seems like a boom in enrollment is likely to happen.
“Quite frankly we can’t handle this type of enrollment boom,” said Schweitzer. “… From a school’s perspective we’re more interested in quality versus quantity and as a nonprofit we’re not in this to make a profit we’re here to educate students in the great state of Oregon.”
At the moment, ORCA about 4,600 student currently enrolled, a staff of about 209 and about 170 teachers throughout Oregon. Like many others around the state, Schweitzer said its teachers will have to get creative as far as finding alternatives to its schools field trips and other in-person gatherings to remain complaint with the state’s new mandates.
For example, last February, a group of local ORCA students were able to tour the U.S. Coast Guard Station Umpqua River in Winchester Bay to learn more about the Coast Guard as a potential, future career choice. More recently, ORCA had to cancel its spring prom in order to limit the risk of their students and staff from being exposed to COVID-19.
“Teachers are getting out and planning for virtual field trips and trying to replicate our previous activities as best they can,” said Schweitzer. “The good thing about all of this is that we’re kind of used to working in this environment and you know teachers they’re very resourceful and they’re very active and excited to do what they can do.”