Senior Samantha Siemerling, who has been a student at Maine Virtual Academy since it started in September 2015, at her desk at home. Photo courtesy of Margaret Siemerling

AUGUSTA — While many public schools got their first taste of online teaching in March, when the coronavirus pandemic forced students to learn from home for the rest of the academic year, one Augusta-based school is marking its fifth year of full virtual education.

The Maine Virtual Academy for grades seven through 12 and one of the state’s 10 public charter schools, started with online instruction in September 2015.

The school, known as MEVA, has seen a 30% increase in enrollment compared to last year, and has 350 students on its waiting list.

The nationwide switch to remote learning has, in part, driven that increase, said Melinda Browne, MEVA’s head of school. She also noted students in her school “didn’t miss a beat” when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. 

“Students still had to go to class and followed the same schedule,” Browne said. “School ended on June 12, which was the day we would have ended. We have never had school days to make up because we never have to cancel.” 

“Virtual learning is more natural than you think,” said Margaret Siemerling, whose daughters Samantha and Rebecca are MEVA students. “Especially as students now are so innovative with technology.”

Samantha, now a senior, has been a student at MEVA since the start of her high school career. Rebecca is starting this year as a seventh-grader.

Prior to their enrollment with the virtual academy, both were home-schooled by Margaret.

The Siemerlings live in Dover-Foxcroft. And while MEVA is a virtual public charter school based in Augusta, it is free to students from anywhere in Maine.

“The level of education that they receive is on par, or above par, based on what I’ve seen as a mother,” Margaret Siemerling said. “They are not lacking in anything academically.”

As the state has worked to establish guidelines for schools to reopen for in-person instruction, rolling out its color-coded system of green, yellow and red designations aimed to keep students protected from the coronavirus, districts have been forced to prepare for online learning.

While all schools — except those in York County, which received a yellow designation Friday — have been designated green and are allowed to have full in-person instruction, if they meet Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention guidelines, districts have the option of choosing to use a hybrid model that combines in-person and remote learning.

In most districts, parents also have the option of choosing to have their children learn remotely full time.

For districts and educators used to teaching in person, however, making the switch to virtual learning does take some adjustment. Last week, the Augusta Board of Education voted to delay the first day for its elementary schools by two days to give teachers more time to familiarize themselves with the virtual training.

Linda Fuller, associate director of educational studies at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, researched virtual learning for her doctoral dissertation. She emphasized the importance of interpersonal connections between teachers, students and classmates — a factor that can risk being lost in a virtual learning environment.

“Student disengagement, higher-than-normal absentee or students that don’t complete their assignments or just stop doing them … lower test scores,” Fuller said of examples of  behavior associated with disengagement in online learning.

It was previously reported that MEVA had a “chronic absentee rate of 30%” in 2017-18. But in 2019, the Maine Department of Education reviewed MEVA for its four-year report and reported the absentee rate had improved by “27 points.”

The Maine Virtual Academy performed 83% below the statewide standardize testing expectation for mathand 54% below the average for English, according to data from the Maine DOE.

In comparison, Cony High School, also in Augusta, performed 73% below the state average for math and 51% below state expectations for English.

“It seems as though K-12 schools have realized the importance of shared time together, even if it’s through a screen,” Fuller said. “There reflects a decent understanding that learning happens best when people are together.”

Fuller said the best way for teachers to connect with their students through virtual learning is through calls a couple of times a week, adding when students feel like they are disconnected, they may get the impression studies are moving too fast.

Amy Johnson, co-director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, a cooperative effort of the University of Maine System and the Maine Legislature, emphasized the importance of social interactions for children participating in online learning.

“Research shows that they will be able to learn, and the academics are going to be fine,” she said. “But it’s going to be different in development for social needs. Social stuff, like little kids and establishing relationships to make school feel like a safe place.”

Johnson said it is difficult to look at virtual charter schools — such as MEVA or Maine Connections Academy, another online charter school in the state — as a model for schools across Maine offering remote learning.

Students at the virtual charter schools are choosing to learn that way, she said, while remote learning through public schools is not what those students and their families were originally expecting.

“Those schools are designed to be online,” Johnson said. “They don’t have the emergency remote thing going on. The other thing is that those schools are voluntary. They have to choose that. But they have practitioner wisdom and can teach other Maine schools good tools to use to teach online.”

While Maine is scheduled Tuesday to unveil its MOOSE platform, the free resource aimed at making remote learning easier, Maine Virtual Academy uses the nationwide K12 platform for instruction. Ken Schwartz, K12’s communications director, said the platform specializes in online and “blended” learning within its curriculum.

MEVA does work to maintain connections, Margaret Siemerling said, noting her daughters’ teachers call monthly with progress reports. Both she and Samantha said the virtual learning process helps create a comfort in talking with teachers.

“I think that people are more apt to talk online,” Samantha said, adding the Blackboard software used commonly by students and teachers allows for easier communication and relationship building. “You still get the teacher-to-student relationships. They are really easy to reach.”

In addition to the online communication, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Samantha also met other students through MEVA field trips. Since students who attend the virtual academy are spread throughout Maine, trips tend to be centralized in the Augusta area, or sometimes in Bangor. Margaret Siemerling also recalled a trip to the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray.

Most of Samantha Siemlering’s friends are from different parts of the state, which makes it difficult to see one another in person. Instead, they stay connected online.

She said she chats with them frequently through the Discord instant messaging app. She said she also participates in virtual clubs, including those focused on creative writing and one she helped start for Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy, role-playing game.

As for advice for nonvirtual academy students taking part in remote learning this fall, Samantha Siemerling said they should not be afraid to ask questions if they need help with the curriculum or learning software.

“If you sit there confused, then you are not helping anyone, or yourself, or your teachers,” she said. “It’s a great way to communicate and people are going to answer. Then you can share what you find.”

Once her MEVA studies are complete, Samantha is planning to become an educator and hopes to attend college online.

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