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February 6, 2021 Academics

Some Sioux City students say all-online learning works best

Headshot of Kylee Achuff
Headshot of Kylee Achuff

One family, two high school students, two polar opposite decisions.

The coronavirus pandemic has greatly altered instruction methods in K-12 schools since last March. West High School junior Kylee Achuff has chosen to take all her classes in an online format this school year, while her sophomore brother Konner still goes to the West building for in-person courses.

“My mom just left it up to me and my brother to decide,” Kylee Achuff said.

“He likes to be in school, that sort of interaction. I think if he had gone online, it wouldn’t have gone as well as it has for him, as it has for me.”

Kylee Achuff said she wanted to keep working her waitress host part-time job, so being around less people in school, reducing the potential for virus spread, made the most sense.

In order to negate the virus impact, Sioux City School District workers have been tasked with such steps such as extensive cleaning and sanitizing places that are heavily used in buildings, and face masks are required in buildings. In addition to that, in the run-up to the 2020-21 year, families that wanted the option to have students take all their courses online could select that method.

About 3,100 Sioux City district pupils and their parents in August opted for full-time online instruction. The number of students who stuck with that method has dwindled, and there were 1,461 pupils taking all their courses online at the start of the second semester three weeks ago.

They have laptops provided by the district, and use the Microsoft Teams program to observe classes in live time, where they can interject with comments, similar to if they were in the classroom, Kylee Achuff said.

There are contrasting views on the validity of online learning. Some people contend students need the social interaction to grow as young adults, and a stance of many Iowa Republican legislators is that in-school is the way to go.

Some students with social anxiety don’t mind the online method that learning from home affords. Others say that the safest way to learn in a pandemic is at home, given fewer interactions in hallways, classrooms and lunch rooms.

Another city student who is also learning at home is Bishop Heelan High School senior Alex Johnson. She said the decision came down to a health question — since her grandparents, who she often sees as they live a few blocks away, have existing health concerns, being at home for schooling is best.

“I didn’t want to worry about getting COVID-19 my senior year and possibly giving it to them, so I decided to do online,” Johnson said.

Her setup is that she uses a computer typically set up on the main floor dining room table. There is another element to her working from home in the Riverside house as an only child, as her mother, Tasha Johnson, for months has also worked from home for Iowa Legal Aid. Their arrangement to not disturb each other is that Tasha works in the basement.

In making their decision, Tasha and Alex Johnson months ago toured Heelan with a principal to see the health-related steps undertaken for cleanliness, but ultimately still felt online via Google Meets was best.

When Woodbury County and other parts of Siouxland experienced a spike in coronavirus from late September into early December, or a big chunk of the first semester, Johnson said she and her mother took that as “assurance that we were doing the right thing,”

In Johnson’s seven classes for the semester, five are in the advanced placement category for the student who ranks fourth in the Heelan senior class. She said there are four seniors taking all-online courses, with about 10 for all four high school grades.

Johnson does her coursework during the regular school day, from 8 a.m. to 2:40 p.m., then takes a break, and handles any homework a bit later.

The grade she would give to online learning, Johnson said, “Is an A. They have been very flexible, which I appreciate…In some classes, we have discussions.”

She is also a cheerleader and does come to school to participate, in distanced fashion, at basketball games. That gives Johnson an outlet to meet classmates, since she misses the “social interaction, like people joking around” that she was used to from her first three years.

Johnson says sometimes on the Google Meets streams, her friends will closely approach the classroom camera, and say, “We miss you.”

Johnson periodically goes into the Heelan school, as some teachers want her there for quizzes and tests. They set up an otherwise empty room for such testing, and she feels safe carrying that out, Johnson said.

“It depends on the day, but most of the days I like being home,” Johnson said.

When the normal end of the 2019-20 school year was upended on March 16 by a move out of schools, as announced by Gov. Kim Reynolds, the final 10 weeks of the year included voluntary online learning in the Sioux City School District.

Achuff said she observed a few online lessons at that time, but had the opinion that many teachers weren’t up on the technology to readily provide consistent instruction. Plus, she described technological glitches.

“A lot of my friends couldn’t get on it or it wasn’t working or (didn’t like it) because of how different it was,” Achuff said.

She said over the following summer some Sioux City School District improvements were made in delivering online classes. Achuff took seven courses online in the first semester and now has five.

The West High student said she finds that traditional courses with textbooks translate most readily to online delivery.

“English and History are easy to do online,” she said.

Achuff certainly misses the social element in school, as she was in student council as a sophomore. Still, she pointed to some interactions this year with classmates, even if they are done technologically.

“I really enjoy it. They’ve definitely made it so every student is included, to talk to (online) students, even though it is through a screen,” Achuff said.

Read the article by Earl Horlyk on the Sioux City Journal.