COCHISE COUNTY — In recent weeks more and more school districts have returned to virtual learning because of the increase in COVID-19 numbers throughout the county. While more students will be learning from the comfort of their own homes, some have been since the start of the year.

Sarah Pacheco has four students (two high school seniors, a seventh-grader and a sixth-grader) enrolled in the Sierra Vista Unified School District’s online program, SchoolsPLP. Because she and her husband work from home, she believed they could help their children and keep them at home for the school year.

“We chose PLP because, honestly, I feel like we could so we should,” Pacheco said. “It’s less kids at the school so they can socially distance better.”

In November, there were 856 students enrolled in SVUSD’s PLP program.

“We see some families sharing that it is difficult to keep their students motivated,” SVUSD spokesman Jacob Martinez said in a statement to the Herald/Review. “Some parents aren’t home during the day to ensure that their student is completing the work. … On PLP, we have struggled with how to get some students to participate regularly.”

Participation is required for schools and districts to track attendance for the year. Each district is counting attendance in multiple ways to ensure that all students are accounted for. However, districts across the county are seeing declines in attendance, from illness and students not logging in for classes. Valley Union attendance is approximately 10 percent lower than when the students attended in person.

“In some places, yes, there is a decline regarding attendance,” county superintendent Jacqui Clay said. “This can be due to a lack of motivation, feeling alone, falling behind because of little or no access to technology, little knowledge of online platforms or the knowledge of how the technology works. In other cases it is hard to find students who are truant from school.”

Pacheco said even though she is home to help her kids, it’s a challenge to maintain balance since she is working.

“It’s tough for sure,” she said. “A lot of it depends on the kids. My girls are pretty on track for their senior year. It’s hard to keep my sixth- and seventh-graders motivated.”

Challenges with virtual learning aren’t isolated to SVUSD. Districts across the country have their own challenges with online learning. The schools in more rural areas struggle with internet connectivity and availability of internet for some of their students. Kyle Hart, superintendent for Pearce, Elfrida and St. David school districts, said virtual learning is not being done in Pearce because when it started in August families struggled.

“When we were virtual in August, inconsistent internet connections at rural homes and a higher percentage of students not turning in work (and) assessments were our main issues,” he said. “Grades are higher and more consistent with in-person learning. More importantly, learning is higher/greater with in-person.”

Bowie Unified School District Superintendent Wendy Conger agreed with Hart that the lack of human interaction has an affect on students.

“Most of our parents and students do not like virtual learning,” she said. “There is a lack of human connectedness with counselors, hugs, loves and pats on shoulders for a job ‘well done’ (with virtual learning). Most parents do not like having kids at home all day, especially when you have several in various grade levels.”

Relationships between students and teachers are lacking with distance learning, which may be why some students are struggling with the new method of learning. Hart said St. David students in distant learning are maintaining their grades while grades at Valley Union High School are lower than when students are in the classroom.

“Valley Union is a very small and close-knit school,” Hart said. “Relationships are important at every school no matter the size. However, I feel the smaller the school, the more those relationships have an even greater effect on student achievement.”

There’s a consensus that students’ classroom and virtual learning performances are the same, no matter the district.

“Students that struggle in the classroom still struggle online,” superintendent for Ash Creek Elementary School District Sue Shepard said. “Students that do nothing in the classroom do nothing online. It takes work, but if done right, students can get an education.”

Bisbee High School principal Darin Giltner said he feels more confident returning to online instruction now than in March and in August. Bisbee attacked internet and technology issues with the purchase of more laptops for students who need them and having hotspots available for families without internet access.

“We’ve learned a lot since March 15,” Giltner said. “What makes this transition easier is the teachers’ willingness.”

He said teachers have received training on different platforms, like Google Classrooms, to make instruction more engaging and now have more resources available.

Clay agreed with Giltner that the best way to improve virtual learning for students, staff and parents is to provide them with training and resources.

“We as educators will continue to provide as much training as possible to put more tools in the teachers’ toolbox regarding best practices on active-participation strategies and problem-based learning,” Clay said. “We will also provide training opportunities for family members to obtain additional skills to ensure the educational success of our students.”

The county educational conference, “Innovations in Education 2021,” will be held on Jan. 23 and is open to anyone interested in K-12 education. It is designed to provide resources for those in the county. State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman will be available for questions and answers. Experts in online learning, instructional strategies, social emotional learning from around the state and county as well as local experts will provide workshops during the conference. For information, or if you are interested in presenting a workshop, contact Ben Reyna at bmreyna@cochise.az.gov

“Virtual learning can be done successfully, but without preparation and proper training of the teachers, educational staff, parents and students, virtual learning can easily burn out educators and frustrate students and families,” Clay said. “(Virtual learning) requires 100 percent teamwork from the educational team, it requires that the team members on ‘Team Student’ take on new roles, learn new responsibilities and skills and also to provide the much needed structure students need in an online environment.”