Virtual school is realistically a catastrophe

By Chelsea Whitton

Imagine you are 6-years-old. You don’t know what alcohol tastes like. It’s a Friday. Spring is coming and you can wait to go get some air before school starts. Life is good. You’re in first grade, you are missing a few teeth – but so is everyone else. You wake up, brush your teeth, throw on your favorite outfit, at this time of my life it was floral jumpers (they weren’t “cool” according to some) and your oxford shoes. Then you run downstairs, drink some orange juice, eat breakfast (in my case usually a corn muffin) say goodbye to Mom, grab your backpack filled with your favorite glossy puppy folder and homework planner and run out the door to catch the bus. Your friends are standing at the bus stop looking just about as lame as you do, and you love them for that.

Life is good, simple and everyday feels different.

Okay, now imagine you do all of this except the leaving the house part, seeing your equally dorky friends at the bus stop part and seeing that other kids have also lost teeth and as a result look like vampires part. Take away the smile as you run out of the house to see your friends or the obligatory hug goodbye from Mom.

That’s right kids. You are not in home school, you’re in virtual school, which is already in practice in Massachusetts. There is a virtual school nearby in Greenfield at the Mass Virtual Academy. So rather than being obnoxiously sheltered like home school, you’re stuck staring at a  computer screen all day, while “normal” kids with “normal” parents get sent to school to interact with other human beings.

What is virtual school you may ask? No, it’s not some “Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century” hologram teacher type deal. That would be cool compared to what virtual school really is. It’s worse – much worse.

Do you think it’s annoying to have to use Spark all the time here at the University of Massachusetts? I do. Okay, well, virtual school is sort of like being on Spark – for your entire education, or like taking an online course, for about 13 years of your life. For six or so hours a day. If I was six and was told that I would be going to online school I think I might drop out then and there. They’d be lucky if they would get open internet explorer before I yell, “I quit!”

In virtual school, you don’t have your next crush named Peter to impress next to you, you can’t go home and call up Sally and talk about how fat Mrs. B looked in that tacky red skirt, or how you wish Mr. Z wasn’t married or how you can’t tell if Mr. K really went to Columbia for the reasons he told you he did.

No matter what age you are in K-12, there are a few simple requirements that are impossible to meet if you attend virtual school.

First, there are in-person questions that exist for an in-person teacher. Yes, a human being that can answer questions may be important in developing some sort of view of the world for an uninformed youngling.

Second, the classroom has necessary resources: rocks for mineral studies, hub caps for chemical experiments, large-scale world maps for geography and so on. The classroom setting is extremely important for absorbing class material.

Third, if you attend online school, you are making no correlations with memories and events. There will be no moments during high school when you look back with peers and say, “Remember the time that Billy fell into the coy pond on the top of the mountain? (This did happen). There will be no memories associated with the crucial learning process that develop who we are and how we view the world.

It makes me sad that for these children in virtual school that there will be no Mrs. Castle telling you that she is cross with you because you don’t understand the concept that 25 cents is a quarter (such is my case). It makes me sad that these kids won’t feel the need to raise their hands in class and ask a question that they are passionate about finding the answer to. Instead they will use the internet as a human connection to knowledge, global and, most importantly, social knowledge. An elementary school is where you sit at long cafeteria tables, drink two percent milk, do your fractions on paper and sit next to classmates from your town or surrounding towns that you’ll get to become best friends with.

Virtual school doesn’t provide the documents, papers and coloring projects from that fifth grade space project you did. There is no opportunity to go to school assemblies, to star in the school play and find out you can sing and act. Virtual school, aside from minimal contact with your parents, doesn’t even involve talking. How are these children supposed to development cognitive communication skills and public speaking skills if the only language they know is html?

In an ironic way, virtual school is supposed to be hands-on, but presents itself as entirely hands-off. There is no one nagging you to finish the last math problem before the bell rings for lunch, there is no music class with Mrs. K, where 30 fourth graders think they might just have a knack for playing the recorder or dabbling on the piano.

According to a Daily Hampshire Gazette article, “Meeting Monday on Hadley virtual school proposal,” the Hadley School Committee is currently deciding on a proposal whether or not a virtual school will be implemented.

If approved, the article reports, “the new school would have 245 students from all over the state next year, 450 the second year and 500 the third year, according to the proposal. It would be called Hadley Virtual Academy of Massachusetts. Earlier, it had been referred to as the Hadley Virtual Innovation School.”

In his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama outlined that the U.S. education system needs reform. I won’t deny that. Actually, I fully support that notion. After hundreds of teachers in Rhode Island lost their jobs to a state with more than fragile economic conditions, this country needs teachers, better paid, in-person teachers, and this country owes it to our children for an affordable, high-quality education. Obama’s message, whether you agree with his politics or not, was true. This country needs to teach children, give them the skills to test better and to do better in math and the sciences.

Staring at a computer screen form the age of five-to-18 isnt’ going to teach a kid half of the necessary social skills or global awareness needed to make it in this world. I hope this virtual school crap is some new-age yuppie parent fad that will hopefully fade out or change as quickly as Apple changes their iPad models.

Chelsea Whitton thinks education is important and can be reached at [email protected]