MANSFIELD -- For many parents, teachers and students, remote learning has presented significant challenges -- managing various educational software programs, staying on task and coping with social isolation to name a few.
Nevertheless, more than 2,000 Richland County students have opted to continue learning online during the spring 2021 semester.
When asked about their online enrollment as compared to last semester, administrators at Richland County's four largest school districts reported the number of students who chose digital learning dropped -- but only slightly.
Ontario Local Schools saw the most significant drop in virtual enrollment, with 131 students enrolled in the Stingel Elementary Online Virtual Academy (as opposed to 175 in the fall) and 125 students choosing to do their middle or high school coursework online (as opposed to 168 students in the fall.)
"This has been an extremely challenging school year," said Mike Ream, Ontario's director of education. "We knew going into the year that the needs of our students and families were going to be wide ranging, and so we have done our best to try to provide options for all of our families."
Enrollment numbers stayed fairly steady in Mansfield and Lexington. Mansfield City Schools' Tyger Digital Academy went from 953 students in the fall to 894 in the spring.
Due to the high level of interest in the fall, the district assigned grade-level instructors to TDA students in grades K-12. These teachers provide instruction through Google Classroom and supplement instruction with online programs including Acellus and Edgenuity.
The district also hired a counselor and interim director of digital education for the spring semester.
Superintendent Stan Jefferson has indicated the Tyger Digital Academy will become a permanent part of the district.
“The pandemic has completely changed how we are operating educationally -- not just in Mansfield, but across the nation,” Jefferson said in September. “If we have learned anything in education since the pandemic, (it’s that) the future of education will not look the way it looked prior to COVID-19.
"The future of education will involve a high degree of technology both in person and online.”
H. Tucker Bacquet, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Lexington Junior High and High School, agreed.
"This has been a popular and growing educational trend. Students and families were finding the flexibility helpful to schedules and weekly routines prior to the pandemic," Bacquet said in an email. "Students can work on courses throughout the day, evenings, or weekends."
Unlike many of the online alternatives offered by public school districts, the Lexington Digital Academy existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The LDA was founded six years ago and uses Edgenuity as its platform.
There were 515 students in grades K-12 enrolled in the Lexington Digital Academy last fall, compared to 472 students as of Jan. 19, according to Bacquet.
"We have been adding about 5 to 7 per week since the beginning of the semester," he said. "We also have 15 to 20 additional students who blend their courses, which means they take a portion online and a portion in-person."
Administrators acknowledged there are both advantages and disadvantages to virtual learning.
"The major advantage of offering a digital academy is that it provides an educational option for those students that struggle to learn in a traditional brick and mortar environment," Madison Superintendent Rob Peterson said. "An additional concern is the student(s) who choose the digital academy option, but aren't motivated to learn in that environment, and therefore fall behind academically."
In addition, online learning can strain a school district's resources.
Peterson said it can be difficult to plan the allocation of resources and staff between in-person and online classrooms.
"The major concern that I have is the uncertainty in the level of student interest, which makes staffing difficult, especially in the uncertain financial times in which we find our district," he said.
Ontario did not have enough teachers at its middle and high school to staff both in-person and online classes, so the district chose educational platform Edmentum for its older students -- at a cost of about $2,000 per student for the school year.
The Madison Local School District hasn't decided whether or not to make the Madison Online Academy available to students after the 2020-2021 school year.
"We intend to fully research the possibility," Peterson said.
Administrators at Ontario are hoping to retire the online option at the end of the school year.
"All of our staff members have been stretched this year, and I could not be more proud of all of them for rising to the occasion," Ream said. "While we are pleased that we have been able to provide options to our families this year, it is our strong desire to have all of our students back in-person for the 2021-2022 school year.
"Expanding into these virtual realms has taught our staff many things, some of which I am sure they will continue to use in the future, but at its core, teaching and learning is a human interaction process. We fundamentally believe that having our students interacting in a face-to-face learning environment is the best way to learn."