As the first week of the Burlington School District’s V.I.B.E. virtual learning academy comes to an end, administrators are hoping the lessons they’ve learned while teaching online since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic will not only offer a better program this school year, but also help them innovate as they look to the future.
“We were thrust into (having to do online learning) last year,” said Burlington Superintendent Pat Coen. “I think we had three or four of days to prepare. And we learned a lot, and (the district’s online program) is going to much better than it was.”
Operating at the former James Madison Elementary building, the V.I.B.E. program now functions as the district’s virtual learning option.
Before this school year, the district’s online courses fell to teachers who would have to juggle virtual instruction with in-person learning.
Now, the district’s virtual learning will be taught by instructors who teach online exclusively and will each have their own classroom to work out of at James Madison.
“One of our strengths is that our teachers are going to be 100% dedicated virtual teachers,” said Beth Shurtleff, the V.I.B.E. program’s first principal, who is also working on her doctorate in educational psychology and technology.
“So they’re going to be able to focus on that and best practices and what’s working really well for the students.”
The program allows kindergarten-12 students the chance to take 100% of their classes virtually, but also allows opportunities for individualized and blended learning plans, including:
- Meeting with instructors in-person at James Madison;
- One-on-one talks with teachers via Google Meet;
- Picking their own class schedules for the day;
- The opportunity to take some courses at the student’s normal school building;
- And other supplemental, enrichment and social activities that can be done at the school (although the activities will not be required for any classes) but still allow for social distancing.
“For a lot of students, that’s a big draw,” Shurtleff said about students being able to pick their own class schedules. “That ownership of their own learning and their own scheduling. … Students can complete their work at any time of the day that they want. So if there’s a family issue or if a high school student has a job or any other things that might interrupt a traditional school day, this works well for them.”
It’s currently unclear how many students are opting to take V.I.B.E. because of concerns about the pandemic and the delta variant of the coronavirus, but the numbers of those wanting to get on board with the program keep rising.
On Aug. 12, Shurtleff told The Hawk Eye that 170 students were enrolled for the fall semester, up from 104 the previous week.
On Friday, school officials said the program has more than 235 students enrolled, with additional students registering up until the first day of school and into the week.
The program will also function as a regional online learning hub, serving not just Burlington students but also students in West Burlington, Keokuk, Fort Madison, Central Lee and Winfield-Mt. Union.
According to Savannah Prescott, community relations coordinator for the district, just this week the New London School District has expressed interest in joining the program as well.
“We came together because we’re a regional community in southeast Iowa,” Shurtleff said of the partnership between the districts. “We felt that we could do the best job we could with virtual learning by pooling our resources and expertise. … It’s really just a matter of finding the best solution for all of our districts and working together collaboratively really got us where we wanted to be.”
Shurtleff said the district is open to entering into partnership agreements with other school districts in the future and that, hypothetically, the program would be able to hire more staff to meet instructional demands as enrollment increases.
“This is the way of the future. We are a technology society,” Shurtleff said. “The big thing with this program is that we are looking at every individual student and we are looking at their psychology work on multiple intelligences, where we find out what makes every kid awesome. Every human being is amazing. We just have our individualized areas of strength.”