When his parents enrolled him full-time virtual learning, Cayden Carpenter was split.
Cayden, 14, had played sports his whole life, but his school district, Bethel Public Schools in Shawnee, wouldn’t allow virtual students to do athletics. He would miss baseball and wrestling, not to mention his friends at school.
On the other hand, he liked the independence and condensed school day of online classes.
It was seventh grade without the “pointless stuff.”
“You just get on the computer, and you get right to it,” Cayden said. “It was the difference between three hours of working every day and seven hours working every day.”
Cayden and his 11-year-old sister, Quinn, were among more than 181,000 Oklahoma schoolchildren — over a quarter of all public school students in the state — enrolled full time in online-only instruction.
That includes the growing number of students who attended virtual charter schools, the largest of which is now the biggest school system in the state.
Now, thousands of families are weighing whether to return to traditional schooling in August.
Once a niche offering in virtual charter schools and select school districts, online learning for K-12 grades suddenly became widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The vast majority of districts in Oklahoma offered a virtual academy as an alternative to in-person or blended instruction. These programs often required families to commit to nine weeks or a semester to enroll.
All Oklahoma districts welcomed students back for face-to-face classes at least one day a week before the end of the school year. But Cayden and Quinn learned from their Pottawatomie County home from the first day of school to the last.
“We felt that we could provide a more continuous structure of instruction if we were virtual from the beginning,” their mother, Emily Carpenter, said. “We were not real interested in yo-yoing back and forth and scrambling (with) kids being quarantined off and on.”
The Carpenters will return to school in person this August for the first time in 17 months. They haven’t been in a typical classroom since COVID-19 forced Oklahoma public schools to close in March 2020.
Cayden, who’s already started summer football practice, has been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
He said he looks forward to starting eighth grade at Bethel, but he knows he might need time to readjust.
“I think it might be a little rough at the start,” Cayden said. “If I get frustrated with school, I don’t really have the option anymore to click the exit button and come back in an hour.”
Virtual learning here to stay
Not all students plan to return to a traditional classroom.
Take Nicole Roman, of Midwest City, who says she didn’t like going to school in the first place.
Nicole, 16, said she struggled to focus in class at Star Spencer High School. She preferred chatting with friends over listening to a class lecture.
Even before COVID-19, Nicole asked to be home-schooled. When Oklahoma City Public Schools created a full-time virtual program for the 2020-21 school year, her parents agreed to enroll her — not only because her mother, Sasha Velez, was immunocompromised with arthritis, but also so Nicole could try a year of at-home learning.
Velez said she noticed a change in her daughter right away.
“She just started changing her dynamic, how she thought about studying, how she thought about having to do school,” Velez said.
Nicole felt the difference, too. She was less distracted. Her grades improved. She even studied on weekends to get ahead.
“I actually feel like I learned a little bit more just because I was in my own space,” Nicole said. “I wouldn’t pay as much attention in school as I would when I’m at my desk in my room.”
Previously reluctant about college, Nicole became open to the idea of continuing her education.
She and her parents decided she would stay in virtual learning next year.
A thousand students are enrolled for next year in the Oklahoma City district’s online program, called E3. The district finished the 2020-21 school year with 3,400 E3 students.
Many traditional districts will keep their virtual programs, said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
“I believe our schools are more prepared for a crisis or unique educational needs for children,” Hime said. “Many of our schools are going to continue to offer virtual and online options for students going forward.”
Online enrollment still high at Epic
Nowhere has the surge in virtual schooling been more evident than at Epic Charter Schools.
The virtual charter school system doubled its enrollment over the summer of 2020, growing to 55,000 students in a matter of months.
Epic administrators tentatively estimate enrollment could fall to 45,000 this school year. Even then, Epic would remain the largest school system in Oklahoma.
“We had families that told us, ‘Hey, look, this is a one-year decision for us because of the pandemic, and we’re going to be looking to go back to our brick-and-mortar school after this year is over with,'” Epic Superintendent Bart Banfield said at a June 15 school board meeting. “We are advocates for school choice, and that road runs both ways. Sometimes those kids come to us, and sometimes they travel back to their local brick-and-mortar school.”
Kendall Rogers, of Norman, didn’t want her son Carson, 13, and daughter Lyla, 11, to feel unsafe in a school environment of plexiglass, masks and quarantines. So they chose to enroll in Epic for the year while Rogers worked from home.
That decision came with its own bumps in the road.
Rogers switched Lyla to a different fifth-grade virtual curriculum within Epic, and that put her three weeks behind. All science and social studies courses disappeared from Carson’s curriculum for the entire second half of the school year, Rogers said.
A week before the end of the first semester, she found Lyla was “crashing and burning.”
Unbeknownst to her parents and teacher, Lyla had completed early the entire school year of math and English lessons. She later re-did the lessons at a slower pace and worked with a tutor.
“My poor kids learned how to be their own teacher this year,” Rogers said.
Carson and Lyla are enrolled in traditional learning at Noble Public Schools for next year. Lyla said she’s excited but nervous about going back to school.
“Even though I did learn stuff in virtual, I still feel like I’m behind,” Lyla said. “I think just because I had to teach myself, I didn’t learn as much altogether.”
Virtual class had ‘very little human interaction’
Lyla’s least favorite part about virtual learning, she said, was not seeing her friends and teachers.
Trisha Iyonsi, of Stillwater, said her daughter had the same difficulty. Iyonsi worked from home for Oklahoma State University while two of her three children took online classes in Stillwater Public Schools.
Virtual pre-K for her youngest, 4-year-old Toju, involved daily 45-minute Zoom sessions with a teacher every school day. Iyonsi said he made noticeable academic progress throughout the year.
It was a different experience for her 8-year-old daughter, Esha.
She had video calls with an instructor once a week, sometimes even less often. Her online classes relied mostly on videos and software-based lessons.
“There was very little human interaction,” Iyonsi said. “That was a struggle with her. That’s what prompted us to send her back.”
In January, Iyonsi and her husband enrolled Esha in Stillwater’s remote learning program so she could have live online class sessions with a teacher. She and her older sister, Maya, 15, went back in March when Stillwater schools reopened.
Iyonsi said she feels comfortable with the district’s COVID-19 protocols to send Toju to school for the first time next year, but the 4-year-old isn’t eager to leave home.
“The older two feel good about it,” she said. “They want to be back in person. They want to be around people. They’re ready for things to feel normal again. The little one, he says he doesn’t want to go back.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to acknowledge virtual charter school students are included among the 181,000 Oklahoma schoolchildren who spent the year in full-time online learning.
Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.