Canvassing Canvas: What’s the next year going to look like for BVA?

“People label themselves with all sorts of adjectives. I can only pronounce myself as ‘nauseatingly miserable beyond repair’.” 

Though those words were written by Bohemian novelist Franz Kafka, it wouldn’t phase many had it been torn from a diary of any current high school student in America. 

I kid, of course, and as much as it pains me to use the phrase “new normal,” it’s the best way to describe virtual schooling. With course registration deadlines and the easing of mask mandates, it’s obvious for people to ask what Bomber Virtual Academy (better known as BVA) will look like for the 2021-22 school year. 

How did we get here?

Image source: US News and World Report

Around this time last year, Mountain Home Public Schools went into an extended spring break and, later on, virtual schooling. Schools went fully online on March 17, and, two days after, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that schools would be closed until April 20.

Mountain Home students weren’t back on campus until August 24.

During the two-month period of purely digital instruction, many students didn’t show up to their Google Meets, and this brought into question how grades would be impacted. People didn’t have access to computers or the internet, and this combined with the increase in unemployment (as well as a billion other factors) made our biggest hurdle the unknown.

Staff would have weekly meetings, and students in the 8th grade and above were fortunate enough to have Chromebooks already distributed.

At the high school, three teachers (one from each academy) were chosen to be Digital Instructional Designers (DID): Mrs. Chapman, Mr. Ingle, and Mrs. Pugsley. They were given early access to Canvas so they could learn the ins and outs and then show the other teachers how it worked. They held one-day workshops to learn the basics.

When a school transitions into Canvas, there’s supposed to be a 5-month process. However, the district as a whole compressed it into a single month– which is why only a select few had “early access.”

The Ready For Learning committee was established and consisted of parents, teachers, community members, and administrators. This is where the on-campus/blended/virtual options arose. The school board voted to make final decisions, and a contact tracer was hired for each school as per the Arkansas Department of Education. Teachers were given workshops on not just Canvas, but also contact tracing and how to lessen the spread of COVID.

Since then, we’ve been trying to make the best of the situation that’s been handed to us.

Where are we now?

This year, Coach Goodwin is the new (and first) Dean of Students. His responsibilities include overseeing 504 accommodations, RTI (Response To Intervention) approaches, and more. BVA, though its development is very much a collaborative process, falls underneath that “more” umbrella. 

“Dr. Long asked me to look at our options for this next year,” says Goodwin. “…So that we have a more concrete and workable form or format of our virtual academy.” 

On February 26, Asa Hutchinson stated that the Arkansas mask mandate will be lifted “if the state’s positivity rate is below 10%, with at least 7,500 specimens tested on an average daily basis. If the state tests fewer specimens, the mandate would end if hospitalizations are below 750 patients.”  (source: U.S. News)

With this, and the majority of COVID restrictions being lifted, it can go two ways: more students to go on campus or encourage more to go online. Perhaps both. Following their total lift of COVID guidelines, many schools in Texas have taken away their online schooling option, and many believe the same will happen in Arkansas if/when restrictions are no longer in place.

“I’m online for most of my classes just to make sure I keep my friends and family safe,” admits Andrew Westphal. “I chose to come in for chemistry just because I was struggling with it at the start of the year and I was having a hard time learning the concepts without being in class. Chemistry is the only class I take in person… just because it’s a small class and I’m easily 6 feet from everyone else in there so, if anyone in our class happened to get quarantined, I wouldn’t have to worry.”

MHPS will be keeping their mask mandate for the rest of the school year; however, with the mandate being lifted in the community as a whole, it will likely impact the infection rate anyway. As of right now, the majority of the quarantining and close contacts are rooted outside of school. Even then, Coach Goodwin believes that BVA will continue to exist post-COVID, especially since its format emulates that of postsecondary education.

Using Bentonville, Bryant, Springfield, and smaller districts across the state as reference points so-to-speak, there is one goal: consistency. The mess of the in-and-out– what Mrs. Karen Maupin calls the “revolving door situation”– has been one of the weak points this year, and it’s impacted staff and students alike. 

“This is where students have been allowed to transfer from seated classes to online learning and then back again on a whim,” Mrs. Maupin said. “I think students must make a decision each semester whether they want to attend seated or virtual classes and then stay the course. Of course, there may be a few exceptions with illness, etc., but other than for specific exceptions, I think continuity is key for the success of both students and teachers!”

How have online students been coping?

Junior Jonas Terpstra was fully online during his first semester, later moving to mixed learning about a week into the second. He switched due to difficulty in one class. Since he’s moved to blended/mixed, he’s no longer had any issues with said course.

“…Overall,” he says, “BVA was executed fairly well. I haven’t had much trouble accessing assignments and finding the resources provided by teachers in Canvas. Although, I personally think that it lacks at motivating students to do their work. When on campus, teachers can find a way to make sure you get your work done on time or to make up late work. However, they don’t have any way to motivate students to do their work during meets, which could cause students to fall further behind than they would if they were on campus.” 

NBC News

Due to the COVID infection rates, Cooper Oxford was pulled out of school in early December and has been virtual for four months. Though the ability to juggle classwork and extracurriculars has grown easier, his mental health and grades have taken a pretty hard hit.

“[Online schooling] has definitely impacted my mental health negatively,” he says. “The lack of social interaction has led me into an inescapable feeling of loneliness and isolation… My school grades have dropped pretty significantly since going online.”

He also notes how this would impact younger students, who are just now starting to socialize and are in a crucial part of their growth.

“I think that being on campus provides a very important part of a child’s development. Being on campus supplies kids with social interaction and keeps their minds busy. Doing school from home completely takes all of that away.”

I think that being on campus provides a very important part of a child’s development. Being on campus supplies kids with social interaction and keeps their minds busy. Doing school from home completely takes all of that away.”

— Cooper Oxford

Oxford, as well as other virtual students, have noted the damage done to the student-teacher relationship.

“Whether it’s my fault or the teachers’, there is definitely a growing rift between me and my teachers due to lack of in-person communication,” he notes.

Terpstra agrees. “Personally,  I feel like taking classes online has made it harder to effectively communicate with some teachers. There have been a few times when I’ve had trouble getting my teachers’ attention to ask a question during a meet and I’ve also struggled with getting responses from teachers over email about assignments.  I think communication is a very important part of the teacher-student relationship, [and] because of this, I don’t think this relationship has improved.”

Many students had issues knowing who to turn to, as this year was a learning experience for teachers as well. Freshman Mia Williams states, “I felt BVA lacked a specific person to go to when you had an issue with anything online.” 

However, students are free– and encouraged– to reach out to their counselors or Coach Goodwin. For the junior high, Mrs. Shelly Jones is overseeing the technical portion of BVA (mostly Canvas-related issues). Her high school counterpart would be Mr. Ingle (or any of the aforementioned DIDs)

Senior Ellise Darraq, who has been fully online since the second semester of her 11th-grade year, highlights the flexibility and independence it grants. 

It allows you to accomplish other tasks in daily life as well as getting your schoolwork done… [BVA, in my experience,] has improved grades and education because it is giving students the chance to actually work things out for themselves.” 

Terpstra had a similar experience, though he notes the drawbacks. “I feel that the online classes made it feel like I had more time because it took a matter of seconds to get into your next class… On top of that, most of my teachers would let the BVA students leave the meeting to do the classwork without sitting in front of their computer[s]. On the other hand, because I wasn’t required to keep my camera on and participate in class over the meet, I tended to slack off during class and often put off my homework, and because I put off my homework to the last minute, I turned in most of my assignments late.” 

Goodwin notes this as another one of our weak points: lack of accountability.

Mr. Rucker teaching law of cosines to in-person and virtual students via. Google Meet

Moreover, this flexibility isn’t applicable to all courses. Some argue that the concept of “the blended classroom” hinders the independent appeal BVA supposedly has. If the scheduling and content are the same as on-campus, why wouldn’t blended students want to attend in person aside from disinterest?

“We want to avoid a situation… in which a teacher has 15 kids at home and 10 kids in the classroom and the back and forth,” says Goodwin. “We are trying our best to avoid a blended classroom so that [the teachers] can focus on their virtual students.”  

Where do we go from here? 

So how do we solve the issue of “the blended classroom”? One solution would be asynchronous classes. Big word, I know, but it’s a concept many of you may already be familiar with. You log in maybe once a week, and your attendance is counted through assignments. Take, for example, ASUMH’s online Composition I/II, which many upperclassmen are already taking. 

Junior Kaylee Drake describes it best. “Our class is asynchronous by which the teacher posts assignments on a weekly basis for us to complete. We generally have one assignment each week, and, in my case, we have a new assignment each week that builds up to a bigger project at the end, such as a research paper.” 

Unlike the listed example, they  “do not meet in person, but [the students] can correspond via email if [they] have any questions regarding assignments.” 

Drake continues, elaborating on her personal experience. “I really enjoy taking online comp because it allows me to allot more time in my day to focus on other schoolwork. Oftentimes a single assignment is meant for a whole week, so once it’s done, you’re done for the whole week… I don’t have to sit in a classroom and do busy-work so to speak.”

Oftentimes, a single assignment is meant for a whole week, so once it’s done, you’re done for the whole week… I don’t have to sit in a classroom and do busy-work so to speak.”

— Kaylee Drake

Oxford is also taking online Composition. The difference? He is in a synchronous class. He meets at the same time as the in-person students, has the same assignments, uses the same platforms for submission and grading. However, his instructor’s attention is torn between the online and the in-person students– the very scenario that MHPS is trying to avoid.

Another issue is the lack of teacher’s familiarity with the program. It’s like being thrown into the deep end and learning how to swim and flip turn and dive and grade 40 different research papers while you’re at it.

“It was overwhelming because Canvas is much more complex than Google Classroom… [It] was designed as college course management [not for high school],” Chapman says.

The school is hoping to put teachers through more Canvas training so they can utilize the program to its maximum potential. 

“I don’t know how many teachers use Commons, but… there are thousands of lesson plans that teachers have already done and shared,” Goodwin explains. “You could pull up a welding class online and it was there start to finish for a semester.” 

If a student wanted to take an asynchronous class, a teacher could hypothetically take on a zero hour and use Commons for lesson plans. They would act more as an adviser for the class as opposed to jumping through hoops to create content tailored for the online format. An issue would be whether or not those shared courses cover the same content as their in-person counterparts, but they would certainly be compatible with standardized courses such as AP classes.

Hopefully, with more training and with feedback, BVA will improve on its efficiency and efficacy, as well as learn to maintain those interpersonal relationships, and it will become a program that we can take full advantage of, even post-COVID.

But this doesn’t work for all classes… right?

The difficulty in perfecting BVA at the high school is the variety of classes. In lower grades, there are teachers for strictly online students (Christy Curtis for the kindergarten, as well as Cynthia Arki and Marie Kressin for Nelson Wilks). But just how do you have teachers who can instruct all 10+ different sciences simultaneously?

It will be hard to replicate the variety for virtual schooling, and many students will likely turn to VArk. But how will this work for performing arts students, though?

As it stands right now, they’re more-or-less bystanders. Our performing arts programs are very ensemble-based, so being unable to work with other students translates to– for the most part– being unable to participate.

Concert choir member Ethan Campbell, who is fully virtual due to household members being at high risk, says that “the difference between in-person attendance to virtual attendance is more than anything [he] ever could have anticipated.”

“Feedback is something I don’t hear very often anymore,” he says, “and it more than likely wouldn’t help over the internet… It’s difficult for the person trying to explain it and for the person trying to understand it. My vocal techniques are long gone (along with my tenor 1 singing range) and my motivation to practice is low… I would love to continue doing choir. I love everything it entails. Period. I don’t think that could ever change. The only problem with that is being virtual. I would love to go on campus to do choir, but it’s a risk. It’s too big of a risk.”

He gives a brief rundown: “An assignment comes through on Canvas as sheet music. I read through it, practice it a couple of times, realize I’m getting nowhere with my sight-reading abilities, and put it down. I listen to the tracks posted for reference and get back to it. Eventually, after repeating these steps several times, I give up. I don’t turn in a recording when the time comes and I don’t learn the next song. As far as I know, the assignments are the exact same for both seated students and BVA. However, I cannot attend live-performances and therefore do not get to sing with the choir even once throughout the entire school year.”

In fact, Campbell missed the Canvas notifications (and thus personal submission) for this year’s All-Region auditions. So, despite him being an active virtual student and enthusiastically wanting to participate, all it took was the smallest digital slip-up to miss out on “the perfect opportunity.”

At the end of the 2019-2020 school year, MHHS Choirs attempted a “virtual choir” by having students submit recordings, sending them to a sound engineer. Though this plan didn’t fall through, it was a great concept, and something many choirs across the globe have been pursuing (see below).

Mrs. Maupin’s Theatre Performance classes have been utilizing a platform called Digital Theatre Plus. Though the classes rely on a lot of project-based ensemble work, they’ve been analyzing scripts and recordings of performances. With that being said, many students have had to drop her course due to their inability to be on campus.

Hypothetically, Maupin could teach a zero-hour with digital students where they record monologues and utilize digital platforms. (This doesn’t take into account the classes she has preexisting commitments to, as well as production work– so, emphasis on hypothetical).

It’s all a matter of familiarizing ourselves with the resources we have and finding avenues that will give students the best quality of education possible without having our staff jump through hoops and bend over backward like the educational equivalent of circus acrobats.

Full virtual student testimonies can be found here