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Sandy Journal

Canyons Online to launch in fall, program met with caution by some online learners’ parents

May 20, 2021 09:38AM ● By Julie Slama

Canyons Online is a technology-driven educational program for grades three through 12 that will launch this fall. (Screenshot)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

The Canyons Board of Education unanimously approved the launch of Canyons Online, a technology-driven educational initiative for grades three through 12 that will begin this fall. It will replace the existing Canyons Virtual High School.

“This past year has taught us how important in-person instruction is because of relationships and connections students make with teachers and their schools,” Canyons School District Superintendent Rick Robins said on March 31. “What it also has taught us is how we can deliver education virtually. Some of our students have flourished online, while others have missed those relationships in our schools. We realize we can offer our students the flexibility of online learning while blending it with those connections.”

That ability to make and maintain connections with their neighborhood schools is what makes Canyons Online unique among other online-learning programs, he said. 

Canyons Online elementary-age students will be able to participate in before- and after-school music programs, science fair and debate. Middle-schoolers enrolled in Canyons Online can take electives at the local school, plus compete in science fairs and debate. Canyons Online high school students will be allowed to dual enroll so they can have full access to high school programs.

“We’re re-establishing relationships with kids who have stayed online with their neighborhood schools to build that instruction and connection into Canyons Online,” Robins said. “The blended online format will have the academic component, whether it’s support and remediation or acceleration, plus the connection to their neighborhood school. This is really at the heart of what personalized learning can be.”

Those changes sound better to a Canyons School District parent of an online elementary school learner, who asked not to be identified since the student has severe anxiety.

“I haven't looked at it in-depth yet, but that sounds like a good step,” the parent said. 

While the parent has been told this year that there were no extra activities allowed at school, choir was offered. The online learner was denied the opportunity to come into the school, even after school, for spring photos.

“We were told that the school was not allowing ‘outside people’ in for picture day,” the parent said, who was shocked to think the school officials considered the student “an outside person.”

In the fall, the elementary student was taught with other online students across the district at that grade level and was assigned a teacher, whom the parent said was “always prepared, great at classroom management” and loved by the child. 

That bond was broken this spring when more online students returned to in-person learning so the teacher was reassigned to in-person instruction, frustrating the online child.

“They have been asked to be flexible, and they have done it. Kids are resilient, but even a rubber band can only stretch so far,” the parent said. “I have been a teacher, so I understand the needs of the school are important. But I don't think it was clearly explained to anyone—parents, kids, or teachers—that a teacher could be reassigned during the year.”

That has impacted students’ emotional learning, the parent said.

“They aren't little adults; they're kids, and they need trusted adults in their lives consistently. This past year has been scary in a lot of ways. They can't have that fun recess and work time with their peers if they're online, but their teacher's face is a familiar sight,” the parent explained.

The last day with the beloved teacher was planned to be fun, but the parent said the student, who initially was excited about the activity, was crying so much about it being the last day with the teacher that the online learner didn't even want to join the Zoom meeting. 

Under the new program, licensed teachers with training in digital teaching will be hired to instruct classes in core subjects, said district Instructional Supports Director Amber Roderick-Landward to the school board. Canyons Online high school students can take the online classes for credit, both original and recovery. This move of hiring dedicated teachers to online learning would eliminate shifting existing teachers to meet the demand.

“We are moving away from a COVID-19 response and moving toward a service model,” Robins said, adding that this expansion will build upon CVHS, which has served “its time and purpose. This is thinking much differently about how we provide flexible, online learning for students.” 

Funding for the startup and operation of Canyons Online would use federal stimulus money as well as $680,000 from the CVHS budget. This would include the salaries of the newly appointed administrator Michelle Shimmin, 13 full-time instructors, 10 adjunct teachers, one full-time counselor and 10 education support professionals.

Some current online teachers, who asked not to be identified, are concerned since the district initially stated it would limit enrollment with the program in third through eighth grades. That would reduce teaching of several grades to one teacher and they are uncertain as to the expected workload as well as the support they would have now without working with a team.

The Canyons parent said there should be consideration first for students who have individualized educational programs. That wasn’t discussed at the board meeting, only it was stated that students would be selected by a random lottery.

Stephanie Pursglove has a high school daughter learning at home because of health reasons since soft closure last spring. She questioned why students were asked to commit to online learning before the new program was revealed.

“I see their plans, and I think their plans sound better (than this current year online), but I think I’d have to see what it actually ends up looking like,” she said. “It sounds better on paper, but that’s where they initially said these are all the AP (advanced placement) classes we’re going to have; these are all of the honors classes that we’re going to have online. (Later they said,) ‘We’re not going to have any.’ So, they said we needed to commit (to learning online) in February and now they’re totally changing the program.”

Part of the challenges for her daughter, Morgan, have been the limitation of online courses. Instead of having a full schedule with AP and honors classes, there was just one honors class offered for her. Morgan said she hasn’t learned as much because of that this school year.

“It’s been easy; I haven’t learned a ton—just the basics of each subject,” Morgan said, adding that the online curriculum would improve with advanced courses and electives. “People who have already taken the super basic level one classes have nothing really to do.”

Her mother worries that Canyons Online’s description fails to mention electives, accelerated courses or dual immersion, all of which Morgan has needed this past year. 

This year’s online instruction, Pursglove said, wasn’t what it was described.

“It was not as advertised. It wasn’t like a normal class where you were in with the teacher every day for class. It was self-taught. The first semester, Morgan was the only student that was actually tuning into class every day,” she said. “She had a teacher who would just start the class. She’d say hi to Morgan for five minutes, then she’d play this video that she found online. So, the whole class time was just watching a video of someone else teaching. There was no plan for online.”

Morgan’s current English class took more than a semester to study “To Kill A Mockingbird,” a book she read with last year’s honors class in one month. Her math teacher is sprawled out instructing from a couch and others “still have no idea what they’re doing,” her mother said.

Pursglove was told not to worry about Morgan’s educational progress because these courses still would prepare her for college entrance tests, but she doesn’t know how when “the classes are pathetically easy.”   

After Morgan finishes her classes by 3 p.m. each Thursday, she devotes extra time to complete course packets to get some other high school class requirements fulfilled. She also is taking an ACT college entrance prep class and the Pursgloves hired a tutor to ensure she will be prepared for college.

“We were able to supplement a lot where I’m not sure that everyone did that and I’m not sure everyone’s able to do that. She’ll come out OK,” Pursglove said.

Morgan also lacked communication informing her of student activities. She’s learned of some opportunities when friends have reached out to give her a link to vote for student body elections or telling her about concerto night auditions.

“The only thing we got was the weekly email,” Pursglove said, adding that some emails to the school have gone unanswered. 

Morgan said she has gained the valuable lesson from this experience: to empower herself to learn.

“I am much better at time management. I am more self-motivated. The first quarter, I totally did absolutely nothing and had to do everything like the last week of the quarter. I would just watch YouTube all day. That was kind of rough,” she said, adding that now she has a schedule for her day. “I can get everything in and I’m just a lot more motivated. It feels like every single class, there’s no structure; it’s all up to you. There’s no teacher, no deadline, no bells, no assigned class time.”

In the Canyons Online model, Roderick-Landward said that the students will be able to learn at their own pace and their educational activities will test their competency.

At the board meeting, member Mont Millerberg said he was excited about Canyons Online as it has taken the “high points” and has “eliminated the pitfalls” of online learning this past year.

“I am excited about this,” he said. “For a little over a year now, we’ve been using the phrase that we need to reinvent education. I look at this model and I see on the high school level, they have full access to what goes on at the school: If I want to do core classes online, I want to do elections at school, I want to play athletics, I want to do any of those things I can at part of the high school. But I also have my flexibility to do things on my own and I can actually accelerate the pace. I can probably do more than sitting in a classroom. I look at middle school, and even the elementary, and what’s available to where they can still access the bricks and mortar and all the positive that comes out of that, but choose to do some of it, but not all of it. I love the model.”