When pandemic-related restrictions were lifted, most K-12 educators and students gladly returned to in-person learning. A 2022 analysis of the nation’s 100 largest districts suggested that most either did away with remote learning options altogether or reverted to the virtual programs that existed pre-pandemic.
While some educators have acknowledged that virtual learning remains a good option for certain students, such as those who have special needs, are gifted and talented, or prefer to self-pace, it can also be a controversial practice, given the growing body of evidence linking too many hours of virtual learning to adverse effects on children’s emotional well-being and academic growth.
And yet, virtual learning as a method of exclusionary discipline—where a student is physically excluded from school or the classroom as a result of his or her behavior—appears to be gaining traction in some schools. Consider the following examples.
As part of a state takeover of the Houston Independent School District this June, more than two dozen of the district’s school libraries were turned into “team centers” where students who misbehave will be sent to watch lessons virtually.
And in January, a high school junior in the Baltimore County, Md., school system was suspended from school after sending photos of himself with a gun to classmates who threatened him with physical harm. He then became one of 133 students assigned to Baltimore County’s Virtual Learning Program during the 2022-2023 school year for discipline reasons. (The program serves about 700 students overall.)
Gboyinde Onijala, a spokesperson for Baltimore County Public Schools, said the virtual school was created in 2021-2022 as a one-year supplemental program during the pandemic and evolved to “meet the unique needs of students who require or would benefit from a learning environment different from the brick-and-mortar school to which they are traditionally assigned.” Reasons for assigning students to the program include medical concerns, unique course or staffing needs, as well as disciplinary concerns that require removal from an in-person learning environment, according to Onijala.
As the instances above suggest, despite virtual learning’s overall decline post-pandemic, some school systems appear to be repurposing it as a disciplinary tactic akin to exclusionary discipline—a practice that has long been used by school systems but whose effectiveness has been called into question by some education experts and student advocates.
The role of virtual learning in exclusionary discipline, debated
“Our position is that exclusionary discipline is a necessary but hopefully infrequently used discipline measure,” said Bryan Joffe, director, of Children’s Programs for AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
Joffe also acknowledged that exclusionary discipline generally isn’t effective in changing the behavior of the student receiving the punishment. An at-home suspension often feels like less of a punishment to students than to their caregivers, who likely face disruptions to their schedules as a result, he noted.
Further, Joffe explained that while not all misbehavior should result in the same response, there are instances that warrant a swift and serious response.
“Ultimately, student and staff safety is the number one priority of schools,” said Joffe, adding that any student behavior deemed a threat to that safety must be taken seriously, and that might mean removing the student temporarily from school.
As a means of providing students with continued access to learning during a suspension or other form of exclusionary discipline, Joffe sees virtual learning as a potentially positive development.
“There’s really no reason a student shouldn’t have access [to learning] while they’re suspended,” he said. “A student may need to be excluded from the school environment, but not necessarily from all learning opportunities.”
Some education advocates take a harder line against discipline that removes students from the regular classroom.
“Regardless of how schools do it, we know exclusionary discipline interrupts student education and has some real negative impacts for students, schools, and society over the long-term,” said Andrea Lovanhill, CEO at Committee for Children, an advocacy organization whose goal is to promote children’s well-being.
Lovanhill ticked off a number of negative consequences to students that are associated with exclusionary discipline practices, including a greater likelihood that a student will: fall behind academically, develop negative attitudes toward school, become disengaged from school, have to repeat a grade or drop out of school entirely, or get entangled in the criminal justice system. Research supports Lovanhill’s assertions.
Studies also show that exclusionary discipline tactics are used disproportionately with students of color and other historically marginalized groups. For instance, a recent analysis by the Minnesota Department of Education found that Black students made up 11 percent of the overall student population, but accounted for 39 percent of instances in which students received a punishment involving exclusionary discipline—either suspension or expulsion. Similarly, students in special education comprised just 14 percent of the overall student population, but 42 percent of such disciplinary actions. White students, at 67 percent of total enrollment, accounted for only 35 percent of exclusionary disciplinary actions.
Moving away from exclusionary discipline
Critics of exclusionary discipline practices assert that better alternatives for all students exist, such as restorative practices, mediation, and peer-to-peer counseling.
“Because we have to utilize these classroom settings to build non-cognitive and self-regulation skills, they’re [students in exclusionary discipline settings] missing out on these growth opportunities at a time when their developmental stage demands it,” said Lovanhill. “You really have to teach children how to address behavioral issues over time.”
Some policymakers have taken steps to move their states away from the use of exclusionary discipline and toward practices such as those Lovanhill mentioned. Between January 2017 and April 2018, legislatures in 19 states and the District of Columbia either proposed or enacted laws that would require school systems to limit punitive disciplinary measures in favor of alternative practices such as restorative justice practices aimed at conflict resolution and prevention-focused social-emotional learning. But only five out of the 20 legislatures mentioned funding these changes in their respective bills.
“You can really set kids up for success through things like social emotional learning, by giving students the life skills they need to make responsible decisions and solve problems,” said Lovanhill. “That is an investment worth doing. We can’t afford not to do this.”