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Public schools keep virtual options open

Many districts are maintaining pandemic-era online classes

Eight-year-old Abigail Schneider (center) completes a level of a learning game with her mother April in her bedroom in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Associated Press/Photo by John Minchillo, file

Public schools keep virtual options open

When New Jersey schools returned to in-person learning in September 2021, Deanna Nye’s children remained home. Two of her three kids were born prematurely and have health concerns, often missing school due to doctor’s visits. But COVID-19 concerns weren’t Nye’s only reason for wanting to skip the back-to-school push: One of her children has high-functioning autism and thrived while learning at home.

Nye applied for home instruction through the school district. Under its program, her children received 10 hours of instruction each week, all after-school hours.

Even as pandemic concerns subside and nearly all schools offer in-person learning again, the number of public school districts offering virtual learning has  tripled from prepandemic levels, according to one estimate, and some districts are expanding their virtual programs to retain families who prefer the option. A few are starting dedicated virtual schools: New York City officials said the district will start two new virtual schools this fall (initially for ninth graders only), while officials in Los Angeles said up to six new virtual schools will help alleviate over-enrollment in its existing online program.

Many parents say the online format works best for their families. Nye, who started New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice in spring 2021 after Gov. Phil Murphy announced a return to in-person learning that fall, said that parents list many different reasons: family members at high risk for COVID-19 complications, school bullying, anxiety, better academic performance at home, parent work schedules, school violence, busing problems, and their child’s special needs.

Before the pandemic, virtual learning programs comprised a tiny portion of all U.S. students, according to Michael Barbour, associate professor of instructional design for the College of Education and Health Sciences at Touro University California. During the last few years, those numbers ballooned as schools enforced social distancing, but that doesn’t mean families and students experienced the best virtual options. 

“A lot of what we saw happening in the past three school years wasn’t good online learning,” Barbour said. Schools were forced to cobble together programs with little to no warning.

Exact numbers of students in virtual programs are hard to come by, but Barbour estimates around 650,000-750,000 students are full-time online students. Some virtual learning programs are run by states or school districts, while for-profit and nonprofit educational management systems run others as charter schools. But even numbers of virtual schools, Barbour said, can be hard to find. Barbour said estimates point to about 1,500 public school virtual learning programs, with as many as two-thirds of those being continuations of pandemic-era programs.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education tracks decisions made by 100 large, urban school districts. In fall 2021, 94 of those districts offered a virtual option. This fall, 60 plan to do so.

According to Barbour, conversations about students who can or can’t learn virtually are a red herring. “Online is just a medium or modality in which the instruction takes place,” he said. “What impacts learning is how we design, deliver, and support that learning.” He added that common barriers to instituting virtual learning are teacher training for the virtual format, the online quality of the virtual program, and students’ access to the internet.

Still, some say full-time virtual school may not be for everybody. “There are some kids out there for which online learning can be a godsend,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. But he said that schools should have a plan, such as an application process or a trial period, for determining if virtual learning is working well for individual students: “At the very least, if they’re not logging in, if they’re not engaging with the material … they should be required to come back to regular school.”

In Deanna Nye’s case, her main complaint has been limited hours that New Jersey allows her kids to log in to virtual class: Their communication with friends dropped dramatically because friends were busy at school during the day and Nye’s children were busy with schoolwork after hours. Because of that constraint, Nye is considering homeschooling with a private virtual option this fall, despite her worries about her children’s individualized education plans if they leave the public school system.

Meanwhile, New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice launched a petition to expand virtual learning in New Jersey, including by adding a dedicated virtual school and allowing parents to choose virtual education for any reason. It had more than 29,000 signatures as of Wednesday. Some of those signatures came after the shooting in Uvalde, Nye said.

Nye celebrates New York City’s new virtual schools, even as she hopes New Jersey follows suit: “Our families are wondering, 'How is it New York City gets it and New Jersey still doesn’t?’ ”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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