Iowa City schools plan to keep virtual option available for students after pandemic ends

The Iowa City Community School District started developing an online program in 2018, but the effort was put on pause due to budget shortfalls. After the pandemic forced classes online, the district is going forward in creating a long standing online option.


Jeff Sigmund

Iowa City Community School District sign 1725 North Dodge St. As seen on Thursday, Oct.15, 2020.

Natalie Dunlap, News Reporter

The pandemic forced Iowa City schools to transition online, but even after the pandemic ends, the school district will continue to offer a virtual program option accessible to all in-state PK-12 students.

Before the pandemic, district Director of Technology Adam Kurth said the schools were aware of students that had circumstances preventing them from coming to school or taking a class they wanted.

Some students wanted to take two courses that were only offered at the same time, some struggled with anxiety and found it difficult to be in school all day, and others were physically unable to attend school because of medical reasons, Kurth said.

In 2018, Kurth spearheaded an effort to develop and implement an online curriculum to meet the needs of those students. The tech director said a group at the district level looked into research on online instruction, successful online learning implementation, and designed a shell of what the program would look like.

The group worked with the Iowa City Education Association, school counselors, building leaders, and other groups in the district to develop the program.

“We were in a pretty good spot at that point, but that coincided with some budget challenges that we had identified right around the same time that we were just ramping up and working towards implementation,” Kurth said. “We knew right around that same time that we were going to be facing a significant budget shortfall the following year, which was about $5.5 million.”

The online program was soon tabled because a budget shortfall that year waylaid resources for the fledgling program.

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After COVID-19 hit, schools across the country were forced to move classes online. Because the Iowa City Community School District had already started working on an online program, Kurth said they were better positioned to make the transition online. The school board announced the permanent online course additions in a Nov. 10 school board meeting.

Iowa City was one of few districts in the state that developed its own online course material, rather than purchasing online material that already existed.

“What we ended up with didn’t exactly resemble what we had developed two years prior, but it certainly borrowed a lot from that,” Kurth said.

Now with one trimester of online learning under its belt, the school district is planning to offer a permanent online learning program that will continue after the pandemic is resolved.

Director of PK-12 Online Learning Gregg Shoultz said in October the state approved the district to begin offering an online curriculum for the 2021-2022 school year.

Shoultz said opening up the district to online students will create inroads to the district and allow the district to recoup lost funds from students open enrolling out of Iowa City.

“For the first time in 20 years, we have fewer students in the school district than we did last year,” Shoultz said. “It seems to be related to students not coming because we didn’t open up physical school.”

Any student in Iowa will be able to enroll in the online program for free, and out of state students can enroll if they pay tuition.

The district is still developing the rules for the online program, but Shoultz said they plan to let students take both in person and online classes if that works best for their schedule.

He also said that this may allow students outside of the district to be enrolled at their local school but take an AP class from an Iowa City teacher.

The permanent online program will look different than the current PK-12 online program, but Shoultz said most of the changes will be small things, like making some asynchronous classes live. The district is referring to the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance’s National Standard for Quality Online Courses while designing this program, he said.

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West High English teacher John Cooper developed the district’s online curriculum for English 9 this year.

He has been teaching all his classes virtually, and online learning has been a helpful format for some of his students, like those that struggle with anxiety or bullying. He has also met individually or in small group sessions via Zoom with students that were often afraid to advocate for themselves in a physical classroom.

“A permanent online program actually empowers and provides another equity piece for a lot of kids,” Cooper said. “A couple of my students help raise their younger siblings, and their family structure is such that they may even have to work a part time job. That’s possible with remote learning that, we have students who are still able to achieve their educational goals while helping to provide for their family.”

The English teacher added that the flexibility of online school may allow students to take on more college level classes.

Northwest Junior High teacher Renee Zukin teaches literary and success center virtually. She said there was an initial learning curve for students getting used to the virtual environment, but they have adjusted, and students tell her navigating Canvas is “super easy now.”

Zukin said she is excited that the district will continue offering online classes.

“I think that it’s a really great opportunity for the district to be able to create an alternative and flexible way of doing school for students who need that for a variety of reasons,” she said. “There are a lot of kids who are really thriving in this environment.”