Don’t Call It A Comeback: Virtual Learning Getting A Second Look
When schools nationwide shut down in-person instruction, slapdash virtual learning became a major issue for many students, parents, and teachers. But some school districts are learning a lesson from it, and looking towards the future.
When the pandemic arrived, the school district struggled to connect its students to remote learning, as nearly half its households didn’t have high-speed internet. Even when the district handed out personal hotspots, they didn’t work for many families due to poor cell service.
Yet despite all these challenges, the district found something surprising: For some families, virtual learning was still an absolute hit. Parents like Woodward noticed their children worked better away from the distractions and social pressures of in-person school; others enjoyed being able to see their children’s classes. Starting this school year, the district decided to open a full-time virtual academy, one designed to outlast the pandemic.
“This will be the new normal,” said J.R. Green, superintendent of the Fairfield County schools.
Fairfield County is far from the only school district where parents have asked for more full-time virtual options. A Rand Corp. survey conducted in June found 26 percent of districts said they would run a virtual school this year, compared with just 3 percent pre-pandemic. Schools that served primarily families of color — Fairfield is around 90 percent Black — reported particularly high demand from parents for a virtual option.
Yet it’s unclear how many students will remain in virtual learning when the pandemic subsides — or whether they should. Research before the pandemic often showed poorer outcomes for students in virtual schools versus brick-and-mortar ones. Only 3 percent of parents, in another Rand survey conducted this July, said they would send their youngest school-age child to full-time virtual school if the pandemic were over.
If district-run virtual schools do become the new normal, their leaders will have to address the pitfalls that have led to poorer outcomes in the past. Fairfield says it’s doing several things to make the virtual learning system last, including an application process to select the students who are best suited to remote learning; a strong emphasis on live classes taught by district teachers; and allowing virtual students to still have access to in-person sports, after-school activities and hands-on vocational courses.
If this small district, despite all the challenges, can find a way to keep students engaged outside the four walls of a classroom, it may shine a light on how other districts can make virtual schools work as well. And the answer to whether a small, less affluent district can make virtual learning work has key implications for equity in schools across the United States.
“We need to pull the quality up in virtual schools,” warned Heather Schwartz, co-author of the Rand surveys, “so that we don’t have yet another form of splintering, fragmenting public school offerings, where we have a lower-quality track in the form of virtual schools relative to in-person schools.”