Advice for families new to cyber learning

Surface Dmvu0xqit90 UnsplashFor Pennsylvania families, one of the most noticeable differences in everyday life in the midst of this pandemic is the shifting of education from in-person to online. While students and teachers have bravely become accustomed to distance learning, parents are noticing a void in the new educational experience that was once filled by in-person support staff such as school counselors.

It can certainly be challenging to provide virtual counseling, but there are experts who have been operating in the cyber world for almost 20 years, and they have advice to share. One of 14 cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania, Agora Cyber Charter School has made little changes to their online operation model as a fully functional virtual school. Cyber charter schools offer an online public education with enrollment available to any PA residents age 5-20. They provide online learning to tens of thousands of students across the state. At Agora, school counselors continue to provide the same level of guidance for students as they always have.

For years, Pittsburgh-area native Barron Whited’s position as a virtual school counselor set him up to be an outcast in the education world. There wasn’t a perceived need for online school counselors, let alone online public school options. However, as the global pandemic has forced almost every aspect of our lives—including education—to move online, the need for an alternative to the traditional public school system is being recognized today more than ever.

With what he has learned over his time as an online school counselor and the unique position he finds himself in now, Barron is more than happy to equip students and parents with the knowledge he has accumulated, allowing students to take advantage of opportunities that may exist during this pandemic. Over the years, Barron and his colleagues in Agora’s guidance department have found that students are more likely to share their feelings and concerns virtually, rather than through an in-person meeting. In fact, as the first cyber school to be declared a “trauma-informed” school by the Attachment & Trauma Network, Agora has a thriving virtual counseling system, working with over 1,000 cases each year. Thanks to his experiences, Barron has a wealth of knowledge about what students are experiencing during this uncertain time.

“The biggest thing we are seeing from students is fear,” Barron explains. With so many unknowns, Barron advises younger students to focus on the good things. “The bravery of the first responders and healthcare workers in our communities should make us proud. We’ve been able to come together for the greater good. It’s important to put the current situation into a larger context and acknowledge that we are all putting on brave faces to combat this.”

Barron has found Agora’s “synchronous“ learning model to be helpful in keeping students on-track—now more than ever. Agora pushes most students to be on the synchronous track, meaning they are in class every day at the same time, similar to a brick-and-mortar class schedule. Agora allows the “asynchronous” option to only about 15% of their students—those who require a special exception or have shown consistent academic excellence. With school districts shifting to online classes, schedules have become less organized and require advance planning by parents, guardians and teachers to ensure their new, online experience is as similar as possible to the in-person experience.

While parents of Agora students are familiar with keeping a structured environment that allows for optimal at-home learning, Barron offers advice for parents who are new to this unique education model. “Even with a well-thought-out schedule to keep, parents need to realize that everything won’t go as planned,” says Barron. “Learning how to be flexible and deciding what works best for your child is a process that will take time to develop, eventually revealing what methods are best for your child’s learning style.”

Agora’s education model functions around the “learning coach” feature, as every student has their own learning coach, often a parent or guardian who spends the school day with them and keeps them on track. Recently, parents who chose to send their kids to brick-and-mortar schools have involuntary assumed the role of their child’s learning coach. Barron encourages parents and families to make the most of the extended periods of time they’re now spending together.

“Instead of focusing on the unalterable facts of the current situation, highlight what you and your children can control. From keeping a practical schedule, to writing thoughtful cards to residents of old-age homes, to thanking the brave healthcare workers in your community, to planning fun family games, there are countless ways to allow your child to thrive while spending their days at home.”


Photo by Surface on Unsplash