Niles Community Schools’ remote platform allows students to go at own pace

NILES — Angie Pingel is happy with where the Virtual Viking program is now, but acknowledged a bumpy start to the beginning of classes this fall.

“It [was] opening two schools in the same building,” Pingel said. “Basically, you opened in-person and virtual schools inside one building.”

The uncertain start has yielded a better fit for everyone nearly a month into the school schedule.

Pingel is the central registry coordinator with Niles Community Schools. She said about 20 percent of students in the school district opted for the virtual option in the fall. With the Virtual Viking offering, Pingel said that Superintendent Dan Applegate’s intention, especially with COVID-19 concerns, was to allow parents and students to be a member of each school while being virtual.

Being a part of the student’s school community while utilizing the virtual format was important to both the families and the school. This also allowed students and families to feel they were still a part of their schools.

The Virtual Viking program asked families interested in the option to commit to being their child’s instructional coach for the first semester.

With the challenges and new options families have faced this year, Pingel said the district allowed some students to swap back into in-person classrooms and vice versa.

“We wanted to accommodate parents and make them feel the best they could about their child’s education,” she said.

For some families, the virtual format has been a good fit. Others have found it to be more challenging, or simply not working, if there are too many children in the family to monitor.

“We have had some bumps along the way,” Pingel said. “It’s a huge commitment from the parents. It’s not just putting your child in front of a computer for an hour each day and getting the equivalent of what they would receive in a classroom.”

Pingel said the learning platform, Lincoln Learning, has been utilized by the school district for seven years.

“It’s not new for our district, but the platform is new to our families,” she said.

With Virtual Viking utilizing Lincoln Learning as its chosen platform, it has avoided certain challenges other districts have dealt with. The platform, unlike Google Classroom, does not require students to log in during the day, at the same time with their web cameras on.

“This is a virtual platform that students and parents can work at their own pace,” Pingel said.

Pingel said the district was able to get enough Chromebooks for students to be ready for virtual learning, despite a national shortage due to school districts preparing for the same challenges.

The school district has also worked to provide internet access to students who did not originally have access at home.

For students experiencing the virtual format of education for the first time, they are still getting their core classes.

“[Students] have all of their core classes and they have an elective class to go with it,” Pingel said.

Students enrolled are also being educated on sports and given physical activities to do, as a portion of physical education.

“All of our Virtual Vikings right now have physical education so that we can promote that movement, which takes them away from the computer for a little bit,” Pingel said.

Sixth through 12th graders are also using a program that allows them to experience a wide array of elective courses. They are also given the option to take CTE courses, AP courses and participate in dual enrollment college courses.

“Everything they would have in the building, we found a way to offer in a virtual format,” Pingel said.

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