A select few students are taking advantage of new legislation that lets them learn from home this fall, even though schools have reopened from their pandemic closures. After getting a taste of at-home learning since March 2020, one independent study teacher in the Sequoia Union High School District — where just 54 of its roughly 9,000 students are signed up for the program — says he sees increased interest in alternative educational models like his.
While a lot of students were anxious to return to the classroom, independent study appeals to those whose families' health may be put at risk by COVID-19 exposure or just aren't ready to return to campus. In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 130 into law, which requires public school districts to offer an independent study option to all students.
Teacher Evan O'Reilly said he believes the demand for an independent study option in California has been increasing for years, and after experiencing a full school year of distance learning, "the demand is through the roof" to continue offering virtual or hybrid schooling options for many years to come. This fall, the program "filled up quicker than it's ever filled up," O'Reilly said.
Bonnie Hansen, the Sequoia district's assistant superintendent of educational services, said the district isn't allowed to provide a distance learning option — with its own instructors teaching on Zoom.
"As we know, learning online is inferior to learning in person," she said during an online Sept. 3 back-to-school night.
The Sequoia district's independent study program is conducted through Edgenuity this school year. The district noted Edgenuity course content meets the same graduation requirements as in-person instruction. With the district's current staffing of the program, it can accommodate up to 70 students, Hansen said. The district is in the process of hiring another independent study teacher and it will continue to hire more if needed, she said.
The legislation also requires that high school students enrolled in independent study receive live, two-way instruction in a small group or one-on-one once a week in person, online or by phone. The legislation does not specify a minimum amount, though.
"While independent study may be a viable option for some of our students, it does not replace the outstanding instruction provided by our teachers in-person," said Superintendent Darnise Williams in an email. "We have clearly heard from our families all of last year of their interest and urgency to return to our campuses, be in the classrooms, receive live instruction, and engage with their peers."
District officials said they notified parents of the option via email and at a school board meeting and back-to-school informational night. It was also posted on the district website.
Students in the program can take one class at their home high school or at a community college. O'Reilly, who has taught in the district's independent study program for about five years and has worked for the district for eight, said he offers an English course to students one-on-one. He is assigned to about 26 students in the program.
"Many of my students' parents do work from home," he said. "I don't think the work-from-home movement is going away; children emulate their parents."
O'Reilly said he's taught in traditional classrooms and continuation schools, but enjoys working in the independent study department because it’s more representative of the college and life experience, with a few hours of class per day, and the rest of students' time self-directed.
"Students have to be independent and structure their own time; they can push pause if they struggle with something," he said. Some students who wanted to join independent study this school year thought it would resemble remote learning during the pandemic and decided to enroll in the program when they learned more.
For many years, there has been a huge waiting list for the independent study program, but the demand decreased because students weren't getting off the waitlist, he said.
Some of the reasons students are opting out of traditional high school include social anxiety, depression or needing to work, while others are academically proficient and don't want to sit in class.
The district's middle college option at Cañada College requires students to complete an associate's degree at the same time as their high school diploma, which is an "incredibly intense" pathway for students, he said.
Maggie Kravtchenko, 17, a senior who attended Carlmont High School until this past winter, decided to enroll in the independent study program because she needed to work to support herself.
"This year has gone really well for me," she said in an email, adding that she is on track to graduate a semester early with the full A-G credits needed to apply to college. "I don't think there are any downs for me; I think for some there can be a motivational challenge but I am motivated to finish, so that is not a problem," she said. "The upside is that I can go at my own pace as well as choose the time of the day I do it, i.e. after work."
She has applied to San Francisco State University and Cal State East Bay for the spring semester of 2022.
Local elementary school districts took a different approach to their independent studies programs. Rather than running its own program, the Menlo Park City School District (MPCSD) partnered with neighboring Las Lomitas, Portola Valley and Hillsborough districts to develop a remote independent study collaborative.
School districts may choose to contract with a county office of education or establish an interdistrict transfer agreement with another school district to meet the independent study requirement for the 2021-22 school year. If the district demonstrates that it creates an "unreasonable fiscal burden," and entering into an interdistrict transfer agreement or contract is not a viable option, the requirement to offer independent study can be waived by the county offices of education or the state department of education.
The total enrollment across the four districts is 35 students, said Public Information Office Parke Treadway of the Menlo Park district.
It will cost $333,585 to pay teachers and administrative overhead, according to the district. MPCSD is the sponsoring district for the limited remote independent study program and students will be required to be enrolled in the district to participate. MPCSD students account for about half of those enrolled in the program and will pay about 50% of the cost, with Las Lomitas paying about 20% and Portola Valley about 6%.
With few available options, five community-funded districts met to discuss their plans, according to an MPCSD report on the collaborative. With so few students, it didn't make fiscal sense to run its own program, and there's no financial incentive for community-funded districts to accept transfer students. "Parents are also reluctant to leave the district to which they have invested so many resources by being a resident," it said. Partnering with other smaller districts could change the cost-benefit ratio to a win-win, according to the report.
For K-8 students, asynchronous instruction will include assignments, tasks, and projects aligned with grade level standards that are assigned by a classroom teacher to be done independently at home, according to the district’s plan. They will also receive daily instruction that involves classroom-style, small group or individual instruction with live, two-way check-ins between the teachers and students.
Students in the independent studies program will use the Altitude Learning LMS platform to track and turn in assignments and to communicate with the teacher. MPCSD will use its adopted curriculum and learning maps to design the assignments for each grade level.