During the pandemic, every BVSD school has had to offer online classes. However, Boulder Universal, BVSD’s online school, has been offering virtual classes for 10 years.
Students in grades K-12 use an online learning management system to take asynchronous classes at their own pace with a weekly deadline. Because students can do their work whenever they’d like throughout the week, rather than having a specific class time, teachers are regularly available either virtually or during one-on-one or small group in-person labs (when there is not a pandemic).
But through COVID-19, BU Principal Eric Moroye discovered the need for another version of online schooling.
“I think what we realized over the course of the pandemic and online learning was that there needed to be quality and flexible online learning options,” said Moroye. “BU provides that, but I think there can be some additional flexibility because there's just so many options of what online learning can look like. We want to provide more options next year, to give families the best educational experience that they need and what their kids need.”
Starting in the 2021/2022 school year, BU will add an additional online option for students, which is currently being termed as BU Link. This option will provide students the opportunity to take online classes at a set time on a daily basis with a teacher conducting the course live. So teacher engagement in this model will take place during those courses. In addition, Link students will consider BU their main home school, but will be tied to their home brick and mortar school for social activities, clubs and sports.
“It’s called Link because we know that students need to have some sort of social engagement,” said Moroye. “Whether that comes through school, clubs or sports, or whatever a student may be interested in or involved in outside of school. They need to have some sort of social interaction. So what the Link program will do is provide a link to the student’s home school to where they can still engage in activities, clubs and social gatherings.”
When students register for BU next year, they will choose from the traditional BU model or the BU Link model. Many details for BU Link are still being developed, but Moroye expects this to be a popular option.
“One thing we’ve noticed especially at the Elementary level is we’ve received a ton of great feedback that elementary parents love the flexibility and the learning pace,” added Moroye. “But the social interaction piece for the young kids has been lacking. So what we’re hoping is the Link program is an option for students and families to get the best of both worlds. Getting that online environment that they thrive in, yet they can still be socially connected.”
Teacher engagement is and always will be a critical element to BU’s online learning strategy in both models. Students are never on their own, teachers are always available. With the traditional BU model, students can go to the in-person lab or go to the teacher’s virtual lab hours. And with the Link model, students go to live online classes with their teachers on a daily basis.
BU has instructional strategies that are very specific to online learning. They have honed their online curriculum in the 10 years they’ve been in existence. They’ve developed policies and best practices that support students, and they believe in the whole child approach, which they have perfected in an online setting.
“We have supports and structures,” Moroye said. “Specifically what we have at BU that the brick and mortar schools don't have during online learning is we have mentors. Those mentors are the eyes and ears for our student population and they’re our first point of contact when students are struggling or students need any sort of support.”
Before the pandemic, BU had approximately 120 full-time students and about 100 part-time students. When the pandemic hit, they kept the 100 part-time students and added about 900 full-time students. With the sudden influx in enrollment, help was needed.
“In August, Central Admin staff were awesome,” said Moroye. “They gave us highly qualified teachers, motivated teachers, teachers who were willing to learn a new school and a new system. We brought in approximately 50 new staff members that were willing to explore new learning and teaching strategies. My original BU staff just jumped at the opportunity to do some heavy, intense training in August and by the first day of school my whole staff was more than proficient to be online teachers. When you have 50 individuals come in, just the innovation over the last 3 or 4 months has been incredible to be honest.”
BU teachers are first and foremost online teaching experts, and many have been doing this well before the pandemic.
“We are so fortunate to have quality educators who care about kids, want to connect with kids, want to build relationships with kids and want to see kids grow,” added Moroye. “We model ourselves and pride ourselves on teachers who seek out to have strong relationships with students. It’s just done in a virtual setting versus face-to-face.”