In a bid to return to normalcy, many districts across the country this fall ditched the online programs they created at the beginning of the pandemic so students could continue learning during COVID-19 building closures.
With vaccines widely available, most pandemic-era restrictions lifted. And some states reduced the flexibility they’d offered for full-time remote schooling. It all means that the availability of virtual school has dropped this year.
An analysis this fall by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that about one-third of a sample of 100 large and urban districts had ended their remote learning programs.
As of August, 35 of the 100 districts indicated that they were not planning to offer full-time remote options for the current school year, the report said. That’s compared to the previous school year, when just six of the 100 districts said they wouldn’t have a full-time virtual option.
For some, the move was a reaction to lower student achievement after months or even more than a year of online classes. For others, it was a result of waning interest as most students and parents longed for face-to-face interactions. For districts in that camp, it wasn’t financially or logistically feasible to continue operating the virtual school.
But if families’ interest returns, so, too, could the virtual school, the district leaders said.
“I don’t think we should lose sight of that possibility, because there are students who, for whatever reason, benefitted from that model,” said Steven Wurtz, the chief academic officer in Arlington, Texas, which discontinued its online program this year. “I just think I’m not ready to let go of the idea that there is a much more modern way of providing kids access to meaningful learning at school, and it doesn’t always have to look like the traditional sitting face-to-face in front of a teacher.”
State’s laws about virtual learning could be a barrier
When the Arlington district opened enrollment for the virtual program before the start of this school year, there was little traction, he said. Students, teachers, and families were tired of sitting behind a screen and missing the traditional classroom experience.
Even when the district broadened the option beyond a full day of virtual courses to include opportunities to take a limited number of virtual courses not offered at students’ schools—like an advanced math class or an elective—there were few takers, Wurtz said.
The decision about whether to keep or bring back virtual options isn’t always entirely up to school districts, though.
In the thick of the pandemic, Texas gave districts some flexibility in state law about how virtual school could be used. But it’s unclear if those flexibilities, which detailed how attendance should be taken and how districts received funding for students’ enrollment, will continue, he said.
The problem isn’t unique to Texas.
The North Carolina General Assembly temporarily allowed districts to operate virtual schools under more flexible parameters through the end of the 2021-22 school year. But if districts wanted to continue them, they had to shift and create schools that are exclusively virtual, rather than having students enrolled in a physical school, but taking classes online.
So districts had to pivot, and some couldn’t do it quickly enough to continue their virtual options this year. Wake County Public Schools announced in March there wouldn’t be a virtual academy in 2022-23, but that district leaders would “explore” what might be possible in 2023.
Where virtual programs are staying (and working)
Even districts that kept their virtual school options open this year often restricted who is eligible to enroll, noting that the model isn’t right for everyone. They based that on evidence like the sharp declines in students’ achievement compared to before the pandemic shuttered schools.
Yet others have seen sustained interest in their online models, which could lead to expansions in the future.
In Baltimore County, Md., about 1,400 students are enrolled in the district’s virtual program, down from a peak of 3,000 in the 2021-22 school year. The online school has been successful enough for enrolled students, and helpful in offsetting some staffing shortages in high school courses, said Superintendent Darryl Williams, and it’s now thinking through expansion options.
Williams said the district is considering setting the program up as its own school, rather than having students enrolled at a brick-and-mortar facility while taking online classes (as is now allowed under Maryland law). That would allow virtual students to have their own school identity, with the same resources they get from their “home” school, like support services and clubs.
Even if that doesn’t happen, Williams said it’s unlikely Baltimore County will ax its online program in the near future.
“I think we’ll continue utilizing this alternative programming for students,” Williams said. “I don’t foretell it getting to that number of 3,000, nor do I feel that we will close it down completely. We see that it is working for some students and we want to continue that.”
Flexibility and feedback yields success
As districts consider revamping or reopening their virtual schools, Williams suggested they lean on community feedback to determine if there is enough interest to support the move and to monitor the success of the program in place.
There should be consistent opportunities for parents, students, and staff members to give feedback, possibly through a survey or questionnaire. Administrators should take that feedback seriously.
Then, he said, don’t be afraid to make adjustments based on the results. That could mean realizing a teacher is a better fit in the classroom than online, or that a certain course really isn’t resonating well online and swapping it with something else.
“If you walk in thinking it’s going to solve all of your ills in education, it’s not. But the virtual learning can meet the needs of some students and fill some of those gaps if you invest in doing it right,” Williams said.
Even if districts don’t relaunch their online programs, there were lessons learned worth carrying forward, administrators say.
Regardless of what happens in future years, Wurtz, in Texas, said districts shouldn’t lose sight of the progress virtual learning forced in integrating technology into the classroom.
“We’d always had a plan to integrate tech more into deeply into classroom instruction, but when the pandemic happened all of the sudden that traction was a need and no longer a luxury. You had to know how to do it,” he said. “The consequence of the pandemic, if there was a positive one, is that it accelerated that integration.”