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Why 1 Utah School District Is Embracing A Virtual Future

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For many students across the country, learning online has been a struggle. Not for everyone, though. In fact, one district in Utah is embracing a virtual future. As Jon Reed from member station KUER reports, the district is planning to open three new fully online schools next year.

JON REED, BYLINE: Eighth-grader Isabella Hilling says she never liked school as much as when she could do it all from home. Her classmates these days are her younger brother and their family dog and cat. Class time is mostly watching pre-recorded lessons at the kitchen table.

ISABELLA HILLING: Two-step word problems - I got integers. I got line graphs. I got whatever you want.

REED: And lots and lots of printout worksheets.

ISABELLA: So these are hundreds of pages of math assignments.

REED: Isabella's been learning online since last March, when her school district south of Salt Lake City closed down because of the pandemic. Every public district in Utah has since reopened for some form of in-person learning, but Isabella stayed online. Her mom, Stacy Hilling, says that was because she didn't want her kids to catch COVID-19, but also because she saw they were thriving.

STACY HILLING: Suddenly, their grades went from average. When I was - I was struggling with, I know you guys can do better. This is ridiculous that you're getting C's. And then suddenly, they went online. It's just like, this is so easy, Mom. I don't know why I was causing so much problems.

REED: Hilling says it's easier because Isabella can work at her own pace, she has fewer distractions and is more focused. She'll be enrolling at one of three new online schools her district is opening next year - an elementary, middle and high school. District Superintendent Anthony Godfrey says plans to open the new schools have been in the works since before the pandemic, but COVID-19 just sped up the process.

ANTHONY GODFREY: You try things that you wouldn't normally try. And when they seem to have worked for so many people, you want to move forward and not lose what you've gained.

REED: Godfrey says schools weren't prepared last year to transition to online programs, but he's hopeful the district's new schools will be on par with traditional ones. Each school will have its own staff and teachers. Many are experienced in remote teaching. Larissa Kou is one of them. She's been teaching high school English and art online for two years now. She says it takes a little more creativity to connect with students, but one way she's been able to do it is with her assignments.

LARISSA KOU: They'll write a story about something that happened in their lives. And then I'll write back to them not only giving feedback, but also mentioning something about the story to show that I know and I care.

REED: Kou says online school isn't for everyone, but it's great for students who are advancing through the material faster than their peers or for students who might need a little more time in some areas. And one surprising thing she's found is that kids who normally have social anxiety start to express themselves more when they're taking classes online.

KOU: I don't only hear from the loudest kid in class. I really get to spend time, like, reading and listening to and watching videos from the quiet kids.

REED: Student Isabella Hilling says learning online is also helping her reach her career goals. She says she wants to one day work in cybersecurity. And at the new online school next year, there are extra classes she can take that wouldn't be available to her if she stayed in person.

ISABELLA: Classes exploring technology, computer science, cybercrime.

REED: That means she can advance faster than she might have otherwise.

ISABELLA: I'm aiming to get my associates degree when I graduate high school so that I can get my bachelors and then my masters. And I think it's going to be a lot easier for me if I stick to the online school plan.

REED: She hopes it'll help her land her dream job of working for the FBI. Isabella says the only way she'll go back to in-person classes is in the unlikely event that online schools shut down.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Reed in Salt Lake City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.