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With a new virtual school, SFUSD shores up remote-learning options for younger students

A child attending the emergency child care center at Excelsior Playground works on online learning on Monday, May 11, 2020 in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo By Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

With demand for remote learning holding steady, San Francisco Unified School District is revamping its ad hoc, Covid-era approach to online education by launching a virtual school this fall.

This new online classroom would serve approximately 500 students, according to a staff report released on Monday for the Board of Education’s curriculum committee. Spanning transitional kindergarten—a sort of pre-K for children whose birth dates fall outside the enrollment cutoff— through eighth grade, it would then feed into the pre-existing, project-based Independence High School. 

However, the Board of Education must first approve the virtual academy, whose estimated cost of $3.9 million would account for administrative, teaching, ancillary and special education staff. A funding source was not specified in time for publication. 

This online school would provide three-and-a-half hours of daily synchronous, or live, instruction and 30 minutes of small group instruction three times a week, as well as physical education and arts. It would be staffed in a manner similar to in-person schools, providing meals, tutoring and social-emotional learning support.

Parents’ vocal demands to end mandatory virtual learning mean that San Francisco public schools have been in-person since the fall, but many students continue to express a preference  for off-campus alternatives. Aside from Independence High School, the district currently has two other remote options: Online Learning Program (OLP) for students with medical conditions, and On Demand Learning Program (OLDP) for students with families who prefer to remain online. 

At its peak in August 2021, more than 1,900 students sought some form of online learning. By March of this year, that number had fallen to 511, according to a staff report.

Independence offers a hybrid option with small, shorter group instruction. According to principal Anna Klafter, it absorbed more than 100 high school students from across the district, boosting the school’s overall enrollment. 

Most of these transfer students were either immunocompromised, had at-risk family members, or else reported general anxiety about contracting Covid-19. Others simply felt overwhelmed at a large high school or were comfortable and focused while learning from home. 

Klafter said that Independence often has students who later enroll at online charter schools. 

“Just providing another district option will help us keep kids in the district,” she said. “There’s sort of a happy medium if you don’t feel comfortable going back to a comprehensive high school. It’s a really flexible, individualized schedule for students.”

In the beginning of the school year, the district heard frequent appeals for better online accommodations from parents. SFUSD looked to existing programs like the Stanford Online High School in Redwood City and Garden Grove Virtual Learning. It also cited a 2020 study on remote learning by the EdResearch for Recovery Project, which found that synchronous class time is best built around small groups, reserving time for students to engage with one another. 

District staff will bring the proposal to the full Board of Education later this spring and notify families as soon as it’s finalized, said spokesperson Laura Dudnick. Multilingual counselors will still be available to families through the Educational Placement Center. 

The school board’s curriculum committee will hear the presentation starting at 4 p.m. on Monday. 

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