As scenes of parents protesting for schools to resume in-person instruction played out in some communities, a quieter, but no less ardent parent demand was building: Keep virtual learning going beyond the pandemic.
School district officials have heard these families, and many are responding in the affirmative.
One of them is Maryland’s Montgomery County public schools, where more than half of students remain in full-time remote classrooms after the district resumed limited in-person learning this spring. The school district was among the slowest to get back to in-person instruction.
“Some families have seen their kids grow in ways they hadn’t before,” said Montgomery County district administrator Kara Trenkamp, referring to online schooling during the pandemic.
In response, says Trenkamp, who is director of technology integration and learning management systems, the district plans to offer Montgomery Virtual, a full-time virtual learning program for students from pre-K to grade 12, beginning this fall.
As is the case in most districts, Montgomery County’s fall plans for virtual learning opportunities are still in flux.
But Education Week caught up with school leaders and other education experts around the country to get a sense of how virtual learning will increase in the near future, and what these changes mean for teachers considering a job in this space.
In Minnesota, the number of virtual school options is about to double.
Pre-pandemic, 38 virtual schools operated throughout the state. This year, the Minnesota education department has approved 14 additional applications—some to expand existing online K-12 programs but most to begin operating new ones. Another 27 applications for new K-12 online programs are currently under review, says Jeff Plaman, the department’s online and digital learning specialist.
Plans to expand virtual learning include existing and new programs
While it’s too early to gauge the extent of K-12 expansion in the wake of the pandemic, several indicators suggest rapid growth.
Nearly 70 percent of districts plan to offer a “much wider array” of remote options next year, according to a February survey by the EdWeek Research Center. Parent surveys also show strong interest in seeing remote learning extend beyond the current school year.
Arizona State University’s K-12 digital platform grew from a student enrollment of under 14,000 to over 53,000 during the pandemic, according to John Watson, founder of Evergreen Education Group, which runs the Digital Learning Collaborative, a national membership organization of school districts, non-profit organizations, and providers. And in recent months, he says he’s received at least one alert daily announcing that a district is starting its first online school.
The Denton Independent school district, which covers 186 square miles in North Texas, will launch its first virtual school in 2021-22.
“It’s something they [district officials] have been thinking about for quite a while,” said Caleb Leath, principal of Denton ISD’s Woodrow Wilson Elementary, who will next year take the helm of the district’s first online school, K-8 Virtual Academy.
“This year, we had so many people reaching out to us who said, ‘This type of learning is great for my child, is this something we’ll be able to continue in the future?’”
Families aren’t the only constituents who want to continue with online learning. Some teachers do, too. The Denton district is prioritizing internal teaching candidates for its K-8 Virtual Academy and expects to fill all 100 or so spots for its first year with existing teachers.
Montgomery County’s Trenkamp says the district will hire teachers for its new virtual program, but she isn’t sure yet what the hiring needs will be. The district plans to open its application process after assessing results of a community survey to gauge interest in the program.
Criteria and expectations for virtual teachers
Of the district administrators interviewed for this article, none say they plan to require virtual teachers to obtain specific certification or licensing requirements related to virtual learning. But they do expect their hires to be open to teaching remotely.
“We’re looking for teachers who have thrived and loved connecting with students through the technology platform, or teachers who are willing to grow in that area,” said Trenkamp.
Denton’s Leath echoes Trenkamp’s sentiment. “Those who really felt they connected well with students online will be able to continue to do that,” he said. “There’s a lot of positive buzz in the air. We’re trying something new.”
Some say that while the growing embrace of online programs is new, the concepts behind them aren’t.
“I sort of think it’s what we imagined 20 years ago—more personalized learning, more customization,” said Hiller Spires, associate dean of North Carolina State University’s College of Education.
Spires says that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of discussion within colleges of education regarding how to support teacher preparation during the digital revolution. “The changes just weren’t happening. They never came to fruition,” she said.
The pandemic forced schools to embrace virtual learning, at least temporarily. Now, with a year-plus experience and excitement among multiple stakeholders to see it continue, virtual learning may offer an intriguing option for K-12 teachers seeking to be part of an innovative period in education.
“The next school year,” said Watson, “is going to be really interesting.”