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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Alachua County Public Schools parents and students lose structured online learning option

The lack of an online option mirroring a regular schedule leaves parents with fewer options for their children during the pandemic

After a year of Alachua County Public School students having the choice to learn from home, parents now have one less remote option. 

Following the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, schools were advised to develop an innovative learning model in order to provide quality online education. Adapting to the new technological needs of an era of social distancing, Alachua County adopted what became known as Digital Academy. 

While students had the option to attend classes virtually or in person, many teachers taught live and online classes simultaneously through a HyFlex format.  

With the full return to in-person classes this year and a lack of resources, the state eliminated the Digital Academy option, said ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson.

Johnson said the expectation is to see normal numbers of students learning in-person again. The county’s mask mandate will reduce classroom spread, keeping students in face-to-face classroom settings, she said. 

“It's not an ideal situation, certainly. We would love to be able to have other options for families, but the state has eliminated the option for Digital Academy,” Johnson said. “We are fortunate in this community that we have the Alachua eSchool. Not all school districts offer a local online school.”  

If interested in continuing a remote education, ACPS students can either utilize eSchool or Florida Virtual School — two online learning options based locally and statewide respectively. FLVS and eSchool options provide more independence to students as they do not follow a rigid schedule.

Christopher Roberson, a 45-year-old Gainesville resident, enrolled his children in Digital Academy last year. His third-grade son attended Meadowbrook Elementary School and his eighth-grade daughter attended Fort Clarke Middle School. 

Roberson said his children succeeded far more in Digital Academy than they ever did during in-person schooling. This year, his children attended in-person classes; however, his son transferred to Alachua County eSchool because of a positive COVID-19 case in his class. 

“[eSchool] doesn’t hold up to Digital Academy,” he said. “At least with the Digital Academy the kids were actually on a schedule.”

Robertson believes his son benefited from teachers’ guidance five to six hours a day — a routine that doesn’t exist in eSchool. 

He said rising COVID-19 cases and an increasing number of bomb threats at the local schools add to his concern over bringing students back to in-person classes without having the option of Digital Academy. The at-home option adds a semblance of safety, he said. 

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“Not having an option is really just terrible for the kids and for their safety and I think that it’s clearly unfair,” he said. “It’s unfair to the parents, especially the single parents who work and cannot necessarily take off and be able to teach their kid every day.”

As of the start of school Aug. 10, 536 middle and high school students and 499 elementary school students were enrolled in eSchool — not a sharp increase compared to pre-COVID-19 numbers, she said. The option had already been growing in popularity, Johnson said, and some eSchool students still take in-person courses. 

Some parents may have chosen eSchool because of the district’s mask mandate.

Diana Donnelly, a copywriter and mother of a first-grade child at Hidden Oak Elementary School, said much of the negative response to the mask mandate from parents online is not representative of the larger population. 

Donnelly’s husband works at UF Health Shands Hospital, so she feels close to the frontlines where healthcare workers are again grappling with rising numbers of COVID-19 patients.  

While Donnelly didn’t utilize Digital Academy last year and doesn’t intend to use it in the Fall, she acknowledged the hardships proposed to parents and teachers alike at a time like this. 

“We're all trying really hard in a really difficult time,” she said. “I will say right now it feels harder than ever being a parent or a teacher dealing with the kids in the school system since the pandemic started.”  

Shaveena Washington, a healthcare worker at The Village at Gainesville and a mother of four children in the ACPS system, wishes Digital Academy was still offered.   

Washington’s son has severe allergies that prevent him from receiving a COVID-19 vaccine now and potentially in the future, and her family takes all necessary precautions to create a safe environment for him at home. She attributes mask-wearing and hand-washing practices as the reason not a single member of her family tested positive for COVID-19.  

“Working in healthcare and seeing the things that I see at work every day, I am for the mask mandate,” Washington said. “It’s very important.”

Jackie Johnson, ACPS spokesperson, said the majority of parents she has heard from have supported the mask mandate and have been receptive to the online learning options available to them. While she understands some parents are upset by the lack of a Digital Academy option and the mask mandate, the district is continuing to follow the science.

“We have to do what we think is best for the vast majority of students, employees and families,” she said. “That includes those families who feel that they have a right to send their child to an environment that is as safe as possible.”

Contact Bryce at bbrown@alligator.org

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