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Perspective | The growing demand for virtual learning

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The challenge

Thanks to the large vaccine distribution in the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has begun to show signs of slowing. Some students and families remain hesitant to return to in-person learning in the fall. Many school districts across the country are working to provide students with virtual opportunities that support families’ needs for a safe, high-quality education. Despite the initial complications faced by students who transitioned to online learning due to the coronavirus lockdown in spring 2020, there is a growing demand for virtual learning options.

Online learning has proven to be beneficial, as educators report that some students are performing better with online instruction than they did in the physical classroom. The benefits of self-pacing, limited classroom distractions, one-on-one virtual interaction, and fewer social stressors have allowed some students to thrive during online school.

Yet, the large consequences of online instruction remains a prominent issue for most students. Students enrolled in online school have displayed lower achievement levels in mathematics and English, with parents often reporting struggles to support their children at home. However, as some parents see their students succeed with this learning format, the more demand there is for online learning options. Regardless, the increasing demand for quality online learning has pushed school districts to establish new, virtual learning academies, which will be available for students in the upcoming school year.

States and districts providing virtual learning academies

School districts in states such as North Carolina, Utah, Virginia, and Oklahoma have begun taking applications for these new learning institutions, and the list continues to grow.

In North Carolina, Davidson County Schools (DCS) will launch the DCS Virtual Academy, which will provide a full-time learning environment based on the DCS curriculum and taught by DCS teachers. With a minimum one-year commitment, middle and high school students have access to a designated list of elective courses and may participate in sports in the school that correspond with their legal domicile within the district.

Wake County Board of Education has approved a redesigned Virtual Academy for the 2021-2022 school year. This virtual academy will include six hours of instruction, with an expected minimum of three hours of live instruction. The board states this is a temporary, pandemic-inspired creation for students or partners who may prefer virtual academy because of vaccine hesitancy or uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic next fall and winter.

However, whereas Wake County believes this is a temporary solution, other school districts see this as a new opportunity to cater to student needs. Oklahoma City Public Schools will also continue e3 virtual learning programs for the 2021-2022 school year, as will the Canyons School District in Salt Lake City, Utah. These districts join several hundred of the nation’s 13,000 school districts that have established virtual learning schools.

Further, school systems in southwestern Virginia have created a joint, districtwide virtual academy instead of leaving it up to individual districts. In a RAND Corporation study, roughly 20% of district administrators said their school system had already implemented an online academy or was considering doing so as a post-pandemic offering.

Despite concerns regarding the impact online learning has on children’s academic progress and emotional well-being, demand for virtual schooling has soared during the coronavirus pandemic. One of the nation’s largest school systems, Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, estimates about 1,000 students will enroll in their new online academy this fall.

School districts are implementing these new growing academies to respond to demand from families who want to continue with online instruction. To fund these new offerings, some districts have turned to use federal coronavirus relief funds. Districts understand that the failure to cater to the new demands of families could result in the loss of students — and government funding — to virtual academies in neighboring school districts or for-profit and nonprofit companies. Therefore, leaders remain motivated to meet the needs of all students.

Policy recommendations

Provide flexible state policies so districts can implement virtual academies: States should consider implementing and supporting policies that allow online schooling to meet family demands by providing a framework for virtual learning academies to innovate and attract students. States should consider removing barriers for virtual academies such as enrollment caps and lower funding rates. Further, states should create an oversight mechanism to ensure virtual academies produce similar academic outcomes as their in-person counterparts.

Offer students the opportunity to engage in the school community: While virtual learning may be beneficial for some students’ academic learning, districts should also consider providing these students with an opportunity to participate in organized activities such as clubs and sports. Extracurriculars provide students with unstructured socialization with peers, which can improve loneliness and anxiety stemming from isolation.

Communicate student expectations: Online learning requires clear communication of student goals and teacher expectations. Therefore, districts should work to ensure that students and families are aware of the requirements needed to succeed in virtual learning academies. Districts should work to create clear standards and expectations for students, teachers, and families. Educators should communicate continuously with students in online instruction.

Evaluate Staffing: All students deserve a high-quality education, which is why districts should thoroughly evaluate the staffing plans for virtual learning academies. As virtual academies tend to have a larger number of students enrolled in a class than in-person classes, districts should ensure that all schools are adequately staffed with experienced individuals who can provide families and students with the necessary structure and support to learn in this new environment.

Provide Teacher Training: Online instruction has presented many challenges for educators, who are traditionally trained to teach students in person. Therefore, districts and stakeholders should ensure that all virtual learning academy educators are trained and understand the needs of students. Districts should consider funding teacher training focused on digital literacy, as well as learning models deemed most effective during online instruction.

Curriculum & Instruction: Districts should ensure that all students enrolled in online instruction through virtual learning academies are provided with high-quality instructional materials and a curriculum aligned with state standards. To do so, districts should consider creating thorough frameworks of teaching material that prioritizes the state curriculum.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published by The Hunt Institute. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

The Hunt Institute Staff

The Hunt Institute is a strategic catalyst for transforming public education and securing our country’s future. Using our depth and breadth of knowledge, we bring together the right people and resources to facilitate critical dialogue and mobilize action on the issues that matter in education.