A Virtual Day in the Life of the Williams Family, PA Cyber
As COVID changed the world, PA Cyber never stopped learning.
When Nicholle and Eric Williams moved their family to Paoli and looked into public school options for their then-kindergartner Euphemia, the idea of cyber school seemed the perfect fit for their lifestyle. “You can take school with you, and that was what really appealed to us. We could travel and take school with us,” explained Nicholle. With school being wherever they were, the family was able to visit their family back in Minnesota—and be “snowbirds” in Florida—without losing a step.
Years later, Euphemia is in eighth grade and their younger daughter Octavia is in fifth grade at PA Cyber —one of the largest online public schools in the nation, offering students in kindergarten through 12th grade the chance to learn online, with the support of highly qualified educators, and individually tailored curricula. “I’ve been to first grade three times in my life,” Nicholle jokes.
When COVID-19 shut schools down across the state in March 2020, PA Cyber quickly returned to form. A seventh grader well-versed in the experience, Euphemia remarked of friends in other schools thrown through a loop at suddenly going virtual, “I’ve been doing that forever, that’s my normal!” Nicholle concurs: “I feel bad for my friends whose kids are home and doing distance learning. It’s not the same as what we were doing. They were all just figuring it out.”
PA Cyber, unsurprisingly, experienced unprecedented enrollment this past fall, exceeding their available spots and creating the need for a waitlist for new applicants.
Aside from the obvious head start of routine and virtual infrastructure—all students enrolled in PA Cyber receive free laptops and educational materials in advance (including guides for the parents to help their kids along)—a big part of why PA Cyber students continued to thrive during this nationwide crisis is in the flexibility and individuality it provides with its student-centered instructional model. While their frequent travel stopped with the pandemic, the Williams girls’ personalities and initiative did not. Both students have a “blended” school week, which combines both live and self-paced instruction.
Within this blended structure, they are required to devote one hour to each subject each day—equating to 180 lessons for each subject. And while they have to stay roughly at the pace of their synchronous classes, “sometimes you get on a kick where on Monday you do all five lessons for a subject, and they have the flexibility to do that,” Nicholle explains.
In this schedule, they also are able to carve out time for extracurriculars—happening virtually at the moment across PA Cyber’s statewide offices. While they usually enjoy afterschool activities like art and theater in person via their regional office, the expansion to virtual means they have more options, and can make more friendships (that they have maintained over Skype).
The PA Cyber experience has made the Williams girls stronger learners, developing skills that will carry them through the challenges of college and beyond. With flexibility comes the responsibility for each student to know how they learn best, how to structure their days, how to prioritize their work, and how to advocate for themselves. Nicholle describes, her kids are “night owls,” so for days of synchronous learning, they opt for later start times. And on some days of asynchronous learning, they may not log on until after lunchtime. With artificially early start-times, she relates, “they might be present but they won’t learn as much if they are tired.”
In addition to the freedom the PA Cyber schedule fosters day-to-day, the Williams family hints at yet another reason they have thrived in this setting—and compared to their more “traditional” counterparts. As we discussed what “a day in the life” looks like for a PA Cyber student, the answer was quite complex, particularly in contrast to an in-person student.
The answer will be different for each pupil, guided by our vast regional resources and the individual drive of each student. For the Williams, this means supplementing their studies with regular trips to museums and historic sites. “We’re big history nerds, so it’s given us the opportunity to visit historic sites and travel. We integrate school into what we’re doing, and I think they remember it better,” Nicholle tells us. This experiential approach to learning enriches their studies, and is certainly more dynamic than simply reading history on a page or memorizing a date. “We live in Philadelphia—they were camping [at Valley Forge] down the road—you have to do that stuff!”
Want to know more? Online information sessions occur regularly at pacyber.org/session/.
Photographs by Ivory Tree Portraits. PA Cyber supports the Main Line Parent Community.
Originally published in September 2020, republished in May 2021.