For California Connections Academy, online classrooms are already the normal reality

For schools across the nation, COVID-19 radically changed the learning landscape. With little warning, students started doing class from home, teachers created new online-friendly syllabi overnight, and high school sports canceled their seasons. But for California Connections Academy (CCA), not much changed at all.

click to enlarge For California Connections Academy, online classrooms are already the normal reality
VIRTUALLY THE SAME : While COVID-19 forced traditional schools to make some massive adjustments, online schools like California Connections Academy were able to continue business as usual.

The academy is a network of tuition-free, K-12, online public schools serving more than 30 counties across the state. Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura counties were added to that list just last year. 

With a total student enrollment of around 7,700—nearly 70 of whom are enrolled in local counties—the academy’s day-to-day operations already satisfy social-distancing guidelines. Students complete their coursework online with the guidance of credentialed instructors. They may never meet their instructors in person, but CCA middle school math teacher Siegfried Elizondo said he still feels close to his students—and the pandemic hasn’t changed that.

“When I first started, I said, ‘How am I going to get to know my kids? How am I going to teach them like a traditional classroom?” said Elizondo, who taught in a traditional school setting prior to CCA. “Over time, you realize that you’re really helping to facilitate their learning. They don’t always need to be in class every day. They’re engaging in material on their own, with their learning coach.”

Academy Executive Director Richard Savage said the biggest change the school has seen since the start of the pandemic is an enrollment increase. After the school reopened enrollment for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year in February, enrollment grew by 500 students. Now, the academy is enrolling for the 2020-21 school year.

“What we’re starting to see now is our enrollment numbers for next school year are trending slightly higher than normal,” Savage said. “What we’ve heard is, if the traditional [schools are] still trying to figure out what they want to do in the fall, we’re expecting to see an influx.”

Savage said that the academy also provides opportunities for the districts it partners with, called “authorizing districts.” These are the existing, traditional school districts that allow CCA to operate as part of the public school system. In the case of Santa Barbara County, the academy’s authorizing district is Cuyama Joint Unified School District

“Because that district is authorized in Santa Barbara County, the contiguous county law allows us to serve Santa Barbara County and then any county that touches that,” Savage explained, enabling the academy to enroll students up and down the Central Coast.

Cuyama Joint Unified School District, Savage said, is a great partner because “it’s a like-minded school board that understands the power and importance of school choice and is willing to offer another option for students.” Plus, Savage said, the academy is able to offer “courses for their students,” which offsets their average daily attendance.

Savage explained that in the typical school setting, schools are limited by how many students they can fit in a classroom. If a classroom seats 30 students, and a teacher is employed to teach five sections, then paying that teacher for a full day of work will result in 150 students taught. But since CCA can “fit” far more students in a virtual classroom, they can offer a wider variety of classes. 

Online school is the right choice for some students, Savage explained.

“We have students that need a flexible schedule,” he said. “We have children that are in and out of the hospital, we have parents that need to travel quite a bit and need a flexible schedule. There’s also the kids that don’t typically fit into the general or traditional setting. A child may have a social anxiety disorder, or doesn’t like fluorescent lights, or sitting in a classroom six hours a day.” 


• Common Ground, a collaborative effort to end homelessness in Santa Barbara County, is asking the community to donate specific items for people experiencing homelessness right now. They need: soap, hand sanitizer, bleach, Clorox wipes, spray bottles, gloves, masks, and new socks. To arrange a donation, contact Gene Michaels at [email protected].

Skyview Los Alamos in Santa Ynez reopened starting May 28 for overnight stays. The hotel implemented cleaning, sanitization, and social-distancing measures guided by the Centers for Disease Control, local and state authorities, and the California Hotel & Lodging Association. The hotel’s restaurant, Norman, is open for takeout, and the pool reopened with limitations. The hotel is also now offering its “Good Neighbor” package through the summer, which includes a local bottle of wine, a dining credit to Los Alamos bakery Bob’s Well Bread, and more. 

Staff Writer Malea Martin wrote this week’s Spotlight. Send story tips to [email protected]