MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — On the first day of school at Anson Elementary in Marshalltown, kids are scurrying through hallways and filling up classrooms. This year, teachers can look forward to welcoming students in person year-round.
Yet within the walls of Mrs. Jess Althaus' kindergarten classroom, there's still just one person: Mrs. Althaus. The educator of nearly a decade has moved to fully online learning, part of the new Marshalltown Virtual Academy (MVA).
"I definitely don’t have a lot of classroom set-up," said Althaus. "I just kind of have my desk."
Though the job involves less set-up, there's more prep time involved. Althaus teaches kindergarten as well as ELL, grades K-6.
"It takes little bit more [time] because I have extra grade levels," she said.
But she says with parents assisting at home, she has extra help.
Althaus is one of MVA's six full-time teachers, grades K-6. At the 7-12 age level, just under a dozen teachers split time between in-person teaching and virtual teaching. In total, the district says between 144-150 students are participating, and they're at capacity.
Twenty-three Iowa school districts are now accredited to offer a full-time online learning option.
Principal Ronnie Manis heads up MVA's K-6 program and says it's providing parents an option for their families to say safe amid the rise of the delta variant.
"COVID is still there, and parents are scared," said Manis. "They are concerned, especially in the elementary school, our kids are at an age where they can’t be vaccinated. We have had parents say that they want to stay here until that vaccination is offered for kids if it is safe for them."
Eric Goslinga, principal of MVA's 7-12 program, says it can better accommodate students struggling with mental health issues.
"Through the pandemic, we have seen a rise in generalized anxiety disorders in the population of students," said Goslinga. "So we have some kids who find that they are more comfortable at home and are seeking that comfortable place to do their learning."
Goslinga adds that high school students are choosing to attend MVA to get a head start on preparing for college.
"If you have a collegebound student, this gradual-release model of them being more responsible for initiating getting their work done, I think sets them up well," said Goslinga. "They have a pattern...previous experiences about being self-starters and engaging in their own learning independently."
Both Goslinga and Manis say many students simply prefer the online learning option, regardless of health concerns. It gives them hope that MVA will continue long after COVID-19 is over.
"We capped out [student capacity] before school started, so that tells me that parents are interested. Kids are interested," said Mains. "As long as we keep offering a quality product, which we will, I think there’s every opportunity to continue if it’s possible."