Teachers, students and their parents in the Missoula Online Academy celebrated the end of the school year with plenty of pizza, cornhole and bubbles to go around on Thursday at a party at Southside Lions Park.
The conclusion of their school year also marks the end of the online program being offered to K-5 students. Next year, the MOA will be operated through Washington Middle School for grades 7-8 and Willard Alternative High School for grades 9-12.
Missoula County Public Schools operated the online academy for students of all ages for two years amid the tumultuous COVID pandemic.
“Kids are having a great time just being kids,” said Ike Wallace, a teacher with the MOA. “A lot of classmates that they previously saw through a screen or teachers that they saw through a screen — they’re getting to connect with in person today. It’s really powerful and I think it’s been a really positive experience.”
Prior to the pandemic, Wallace taught at Rattlesnake Elementary. As a teacher, he appreciated the district’s continuation of online instruction because the in-person, traditional model wasn’t the right fit for every student or educator.
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“I was grateful to be a part of just creating this, to reinvent the wheel while the bus was rolling and try not to get run over,” Wallace said. “I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to have an option for students and families (and) for teachers.”
Wallace hasn’t quite decided on what the next school year might look like for him yet. He’s looking at options to teach in person again, but is also considering remote teaching options outside of MCPS.
Ultimately, he wishes that the district would continue offering the online academy to younger students.
Robin Pleninger from Ronan enrolled her two elementary-aged children in the MOA earlier this school year as out-of-district transfer students, citing concerns of COVID and no online option for instruction in their home district.
She said that both of her children excelled academically in the MOA due to its smaller class sizes and one-on-one time with teachers. Throughout the school year, her son’s first-grade teachers scheduled in-person field trips for their classmates to meet each other.
As first graders in the MOA, many of the students in her son’s grade had never been inside a school and did not know classroom etiquette like raising hands to ask a question, or lining up in single file. So, his teacher started welcoming students to in-person classrooms every other Friday afternoon.
“They’re just amazing,” Pleninger said about her children’s teachers in the MOA. “They know what the kids need. I’m just really going to miss that place.”
Pleninger is unsure what next school year will look like for her children.
“I’m nervous for the fall because the issues that drove me away from (Ronan) are still occurring and I don’t have an alternative now that (the MOA’s) gone,” Pleninger said.
MCPS administrators decided to scale back the MOA after a majority of K-6 students responded to a survey saying that they intend to return to in-person instruction next school year, according to assistant superintendent Russ Lodge. Additionally, middle school and high school students made up the bulk of those enrolled in the MOA.
Lodge believes the online academy was ultimately successful and it helped the district break barriers in offering multiple ways for students to learn.
“The pandemic forced us to think out of the box and we didn’t have a choice,” Lodge said. “It was like, we’ve got to come up with something different and it’s got to be now.”
Lodge observed that while many students opted for the online academy due to health concerns amid the pandemic, many of the older kids preferred learning remotely.
That was true for recent Sentinel High School graduate Gabby Fields, who came to the end-of-the-year celebration on Thursday with her mom Wendy Fields.
When the onset of the pandemic derailed in-person instruction during Gabby’s sophomore year of high school, she really enjoyed remote learning and never returned to the classroom.
“For me personally, it was a lot better both maturing-wise and learning-wise,” Gabby said. “I think all the teachers were awesome. Even though they weren’t in-person they were really willing to work with you and just helped you at any cost.”
Wendy agreed that online learning was a better fit for her daughter because she had more one-on-one time with teachers.
At first, the risk of COVID infection played a role in Gabby’s decision to continue her high school education online.
“I totally could have made the decision to go back, but I chose this,” Gabby said. “I was like, no, this has worked for me for two years.”
“We even had a long discussion about do you want to go back for your senior year?” Wendy added. “And she was like, I really don’t, I’m happy with this.”
In the fall, Gabby plans to attend the University of Montana with the goal of one day becoming a nurse.