UCS announces plans for virtual learning

Teachers union skeptical of e-learning firm’s role

By: Eric Czarnik | C&G Newspapers | Published July 17, 2020


STERLING HEIGHTS — Students with medical conditions or who are concerned about coronavirus risk in classrooms this fall will have the option to continue their education online, according to Utica Community Schools.

On July 10, UCS Superintendent Christine Johns sent a letter to parents about the proposed plans for the UCS Campus for Connected Learning’s UCS Virtual Academy. The new school year is set to start Sept. 1.

School officials say the virtual school will be there for parents who are concerned about their students returning to class amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the letter, Johns said the academy “goes beyond what the typical e-learning program offers.” She said it will offer personalized learning, adding that “highly qualified UCS teachers will guide learning while academic coaches will provide tutoring support responsive to student needs.”

“As we finalize plans for reopening our schools in September, we want to offer families a virtual option that provides a comprehensive program to meet the academic and mental health needs of students,” Johns said in a statement.

Bob Monroe, UCS’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, talked about the need that the virtual program will fill for UCS families that are concerned about safety and the pandemic. He said the district is looking to assemble a full-fledged virtual option, even as it hopes to reopen schools for in-class learning this fall.

Monroe said it’s hard to tell how popular the virtual program will be until fall enrollment. UCS said they took a survey recently of the school community that revealed around 20% of families would prefer full-time virtual instruction to the normal classroom setting. And Monroe said, as of July 16, over 1,800 students have already requested to be considered for the virtual academy.

He said the fully virtual option will offer a full curriculum of core instruction and electives at the elementary, junior high and high school levels. Participating students would receive a computer along with their digital curricula, he added.

“We are certainly looking to provide as comprehensive of a school experience for our students as they would receive in our traditional K-12 buildings,” he said.

UCS said parents may expect to hear more about how the virtual program works before the school year begins, and interested students will get training on how to use it.

Monroe said the program’s cost to the district is unclear at this time.

The teachers union responds
The Utica Education Association teachers union has some questions and concerns about the proposal.

UEA President Liza Parkinson said she has largely been kept in the dark about the virtual learning plan’s specifics. She suspects that teachers will be in more of an oversight role, while the heavy instructional lifting will fall upon private academic coaches.

Parkinson said she has heard that UCS will use the Arizona-based e-learning company Edgenuity and its Odysseyware program for the virtual academy. UCS currently uses Odysseyware for its student credit recovery and summer school programs, she said.

Parkinson said that, while the virtual learning curriculum is reportedly based on Common Core state standards, she said it’s different material from what UCS teachers typically use.

“Our teachers who work in the credit recovery classrooms and in summer school do not feel it is very robust,” she said. “And there’s an integrity issue because all of the answers to their homework and the assessments are available online. So the insider nickname for this is ‘Google U.,’ or Google University.”

Parkinson said the UEA has an internal Facebook page, and a teacher’s post asked who there would volunteer to write the curriculum and work with developing the online academy. She said over 200 teachers volunteered their support in less than two days.

“I would rather have 200 teachers who care about their kids and know about what our standards and expectations for our children craft the program than a for-profit company that’s not even based in Michigan,” she said.

Parkinson said the Board of Education will have to vote to approve the overall plan. By the time the proposal is before the board, she fears it “will be too late to change anything.”

But Parkinson added that she believes community pressure from parents, based on concerns about the academic coaches, is causing the school district to “adjust their statements” regarding the virtual program.

The role of teachers
Days after the July 10 letter went out, school officials clarified the role UCS teachers will play in the virtual academy, adding that they will provide instruction as the primary deliverers. The academic coaches will be there as supports, Monroe said.

“It’s going to be taught by UCS teachers,” he said. “We’re looking to develop our academy. We’re looking to use the existing curricula that we have in our school district now and utilize Utica Community Schools teachers.

“What our community is longing for is a consistent delivery of instruction through an online platform. We would look to offer opportunities to our Utica Education Association to jump into this online academy to deliver the primary instruction.”

Monroe said the district already uses Edgenuity Odysseyware digital curriculum materials for elementary math and reading, as well as summer school and credit recovery. He added that the district is on a short timeline to develop a full battery of digital learning content prior to the new school year’s beginning.

Monroe again emphasized that the Odysseyware materials will be used by Utica Community Schools teachers who are UEA members.

“As teachers are utilizing the digital curriculum,” he said, “they will have the ability to customize and utilize resources that they have used in their own classroom. They will personalize their classroom for the students in a virtual manner.”

However, Monroe said the district won’t make teachers do online teaching and in-classroom instruction at the same time, adding that imposing that “would not be the right thing to do.”

“What would be right is we provide top-quality training and make sure our teachers are prepared in the online academy,” he said.

Monroe praised UCS teachers for doing a “fantastic job” adapting to remote learning in the spring, after COVID-19 closed down school buildings.

“What we recognize is that we continue to work on structure and consistency and the quality of covering all the curricula in this online platform,” Monroe said. “We are looking to come back to face-to-face (instruction). We’re prepared to provide something of quality and what UCS would expect to deliver.”

An Edgenuity spokesperson did not respond for comment by press time.

Find out more about Utica Community Schools and the virtual academy by visiting www.uticak12.org/UCSconnected or by calling (586) 797-1000. Find out more about Edgenuity by visiting www.edgenuity.com.