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Missoula Online Academy Represents a Unique Model for Pandemic Learning

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for pandemic learning—but Missoula Online Academy represents a creative solution to student and teacher concerns.

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Ali discovered the power of journalism through work in her community. As co-editor of her school paper, she encourages students to read the news by prioritizing a strong digital presence. She's passionate about politics and civic engagement, and founded a project to interview candidates for local office on the issues youth care about. She's also a leader on and off the field, as captain of her school's JV soccer team and a member of the Varsity swim team. When she's not advocating for social justice or writing to amplify silenced voices, you can find her baking or dancing to Taylor Swift songs.

(Image Source: Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

With pandemic learning, there is no one size fits all solution. Each state, city, school district and school has made its own decisions as to how to proceed with schooling as COVID-19 continues to spread across the country.

When school districts across the country considered whether to proceed with a hybrid model or any form of in-person learning, they also had to consider how to provide accommodations for students who may be high risk or live with people in a high-risk population. Even when it may be safe for the majority of students and teachers to return to in-person learning, it is not possible for every student.

To attempt to solve this issue, the Missoula County Public School District (MCPS) separated the students and teachers who elected not to come to school in person from the general population of students and teachers. That select group formed the Missoula Online Academy (MOA). Roughly one-fifth of MCPS students are enrolled, while the remaining students have been in person in a hybrid model since the school year began.

The MOA follows a unique design. At the high school level, students are enrolled in six classes with a rotating block schedule. They take three classes a day, four days a week, with Monday’s as an asynchronous “off” day without live meets. Each day students attend their first live virtual class meeting, then have some time for independent work for that class. This will repeat for their three classes that day.

Rachel Lunde, a longtime educator from Missoula who previously taught history at Hellgate High School, chose to teach remotely this year. She currently teaches world history, US history, and AP US history. Setting up a virtual classroom had a steep learning curve, she said, but she’s tried to forge relationships with her students online.

“It’s hard to find ways to connect with the kids or to make things, make activities and lessons that are meaningful. But I also want them to connect with each other because I know that they miss that social interaction too. So what I’ve tried to do is replicate just a regular classroom as much as possible in a virtual setting,” she said.

Students appreciate how hard teachers are working. Robert Luceno, a junior, expressed gratitude. “The MOA teachers have gone above and beyond in providing an efficient environment for students to learn, and even though it has been challenging for teachers to adapt to these circumstances, they have done their best in learning how to teach through a screen.”

Just like with remote working, virtual events or online meetings, technology is never without problems. Even the best teachers have undoubtedly experienced this. Lunde said, “It’s never completely consistent, it’s always a little clunky, there’s always some kind of thing that isn’t working — I’m glitching, or whatever. But the kids are super forgiving.”

Online learning comes with its own set of challenges, but for high schoolers, it initially seemed simpler. Plenty of work done by high school students in Missoula prior to the pandemic was online or via Google Classroom. However, there were countless issues and questions that presented themselves as MOA was created. What technology should be used? What will the curriculum look like? How will students interact? Where can they find enough teachers? What about students who don’t have access to the right technology?

To address these issues, MOA administrators tackled them one by one. According to Rae Cooper and Robyn Nuttall, the MOA’s 9–12 Principal and Assistant Principal, over the summer they assigned teachers to classes based on their certifications.

“All of our teachers are certified in the content area they are teaching. At the beginning of the year, staff worked together to identify their strengths and areas of expertise before we assigned courses. Then we worked to hire additional staff to fill the remaining classrooms,” they said.

The next step was to figure out what the teachers would teach. A decision was made to purchase Apex, a digital curriculum. While the majority of teachers in the MOA are using Apex, Lunde took a look at the courses and decided to design her own curriculum. She said she’s one of the few teachers who chose to do so.

“One of the things I love is the relationships that you build with teenagers, so I felt like the online course wouldn’t really give me that as much. And I just like creating lessons, to be honest, and I’ve taught US history before so it’s super easy… I just feel like the online course is self-guided and it just didn’t look as good to me. Like I think I can actually provide a better instruction than what that course provides,” she said.

One question that remains is how teachers will approach courses when/if MOA ends. Students from the same schools are taking the same classes but learning from different curriculums, and for classes that build upon the prior year, integration may be a challenge.

The other issue that has been posed is in regards to funding. Apex is an expensive program and quotes published online for other school districts range up to $200 per student. Hiring new teachers for online schooling has also cost the school district a considerable amount. Some have expressed concern that this expenditure was too costly if the online academy won’t be around forever. Whether or not this will affect available funding in the next few years remains to be seen. Cooper and Nuttall declined to comment on these issues on behalf of the administration.

For the time being, MOA has proven to be a solid option for many students. Luceno chose virtual learning due to living with at-risk family members. He recognized that the MOA has pros and cons, but he has still enjoyed it.

“The pros of MOA are the convenience of learning from home, not having to find a way to get to school and also being able to organize a schedule to your needs. The negatives to remote learning are the minimal contact between students and teachers, and not being able to meet new friends and see old ones,” he said.

His feelings about it reflect Lunde’s hypothesis, that “just like in the regular classroom there’s some kids who totally love it and there’s some kids who probably don’t… I think if you asked some students, I feel like the students would say sort of what I’m saying: ‘Yeah, it’s going okay, I’m learning, but I wish I were in the regular classroom.’ I don’t think the computer is ever going to replace in-person learning,” she said.

The new administration and teachers worked long hours over the summer and throughout the beginning of the school year to effectively establish a single “school” for students from all across the county, one where your classroom was your home.

“I know that the people who are at the administrative level of MOA have worked so hard to really make it a school and not just some kind of online thing that isn’t part of the student’s life. They’ve done a great job of creating community in this really weird virtual space,” said Lunde.

“We sort of all started at ground zero and we worked our way together to form what is now MOA. I think it’s really successful, I’m really impressed with it. It was super hard in the beginning, I was working like 13 hour days. Now it’s at least the usual 8 hours a day, and it’s much better and smoother.”

MOA will continue to be an option for the second semester of the 2020–21 school year that will begin on Jan. 25, and at that point, students will be given the option to switch in or out of it. It remains to be seen if it will last into the 2021–22 school year, but the status of vaccine distribution and COVID-19 cases over the summer will likely influence the decision.

“I plan on staying in the MOA until it is completely safe for me and my family to get back to normal life, possibly when a vaccine is released, or until the number of COVID cases drops,” said Luceno.

Students and parents alike appreciate that MCPS provided MOA as an option. Cooper and Nuttall said, “We know that MOA will be around for the next semester. We have heard from a lot of families that this type of learning works well for them and they are grateful to have MOA available during a pandemic.”