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How Blended Learning Helps in a Crisis (Contributed)

A public charter school in Maryland has been practicing blended learning for years. What they have learned could serve as a model for K-12 public schools as they shift to distance learning during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic closed K-12 schools and universities around the world, impacting millions of students, parents and educators. While the majority of educational institutions scrambled to come up with a Plan B, our 660 middle and high schoolers were able to make the transition to remote learning without major disruptions. 

Founded in 2013, College Park Academy (CPA) is one of the first "bricks and clicks" public charter schools in the United States. While CPA students attend school every day, their curriculum is entirely online, and one-third of their courses are taught in virtual classrooms. Our curriculum and instruction utilize personalized and active learning, allowing students to work at their own pace, catch up when they fall behind and advance when they are ready to move ahead.

During this unprecedented and daunting time, providing children with some semblance of normalcy is of utmost importance. Without digital platforms in place, many traditional learning institutions have been stuck in educational limbo. Ramping up for distance learning has presented them with a unique set of challenges: determining which platforms to use, training teachers and students to use them, modifying curriculums, identifying and accounting for technological gaps, and then, of course, implementing a largely untested concept for an indeterminate amount of time. 

Under CPA's blended-learning model, students benefit from the flexibility and scope of a digital learning platform and the personalized attention and social advantages of being in the classroom. While the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily disabled the "bricks" component of our approach, CPA’s students and teachers have been able to adapt relatively seamlessly to distance learning. Here are some of the reasons why:

Tech Readiness - Technology is the cornerstone of our education model. Being tech-ready has allowed us to get everyone up and running almost immediately. All CPA teachers and students are required to have laptops, whether their own or a loaner from the school. Our fully integrated platform for delivering academic instruction, posting real-time grades, and communicating with parents and students, can be accessed from anywhere in the world. Whether at school or home, our students and teachers have everything they need at their fingertips. Our years of experience with online learning allows us to quickly diagnose and solve for any tech issues that may arise. 

Blended Learning - Our students are already acclimated to both synchronous and asynchronous styles of learning, giving them a unique advantage amid the current public health crisis. Attending classes and following curriculum online is second nature to them. They are also accustomed to self-study and working independently at their own pace. The ease with which they navigate tech-based learning, along with the autonomy they've developed along the way, has made the transition to studying from home a little less stressful. The same goes for our teachers. Everything they need — lessons, discussions, tests — is available on our platform. Instead of spending countless hours planning lessons, they are able to focus on creating deeper, more innovative activities to reinforce the lessons and content.

Robust Online Curriculum - CPA students are taking 65 different virtual courses this year, including 11 Advanced Placement (AP) classes. They range from foreign language, science, and art to math, entrepreneurship, and psychology. Without the class size restrictions or hiring limitations facing brick-and-mortar schools, we can offer courses, whether we have five kids or 50 kids interested, in Chinese Ill. All CPA courses are taught by certified teachers and have been approved for credit by the county and state. Understandably, traditional classroom curriculums are not designed to be utilized online. 

The majority of states have officially closed for the remainder of the academic year and attention is already turning to the fall. It's unclear what next school year will look like. There's talk about staggering learning days, weekend classes, temperature screenings, and sending only elementary students back first. One thing is certain, distance learning will continue to play a major role. The schools that have embraced and adapted to it will have the most success.

We miss seeing our students every day and look forward to getting back to the "bricks." Until then, we are grateful that our school's adaptation of technology is enabling us to continue educating and supporting them. We will get through this together.

Gordon Libby is the high school principal at College Park Academy, a public charter school founded in partnership with the University of Maryland and the City of College Park, Md., as part of the College Park City-University Partnership’s 2020 University District Vision to expand high quality K-12 educational opportunities.