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Sticking around: Most big districts will offer virtual learning this fall, a sign of pandemic’s effect

Twins and high school seniors Dermot and Aidan McMillan do classwork from their home.

At least half of the nation’s 20 largest school districts will offer more full-time virtual schooling this fall than they did before the pandemic.

Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

All kinds of applications have come Monica Morris’ way as she prepares to open the Dallas school district’s first standalone virtual school this fall. 

Some applicants are students who have been homeschooled or enrolled in a temporary online program. Others struggled this year after returning to in-person class. A handful have serious medical needs. 

All are hoping to attend iLearn Virtual Academy next year, which will enroll up to 350 students in third through eighth grades.

“We have seen a lot of interest,” said Morris, the school’s principal. “This isn’t just a pandemic response mode of learning anymore.”

Dallas is one of several large school districts set to expand their virtual offerings in the coming school year. Some, like Los Angeles and New York City, plan to open new standalone schools, while others, like Gwinnett County in Georgia, will add grade levels.

Nearly all of the nation’s 20 largest school districts will have a remote option this fall, with at least half offering more full-time virtual schooling than they did before the pandemic, a Chalkbeat review found. The shifts suggest that districts’ expansion of online schooling is poised to be a lasting consequence of the pandemic, despite longstanding questions about its effectiveness.

“Overall, 95% of the kids who attended school before the pandemic will be attending in person after the pandemic and in the near future,” said Larry Cuban, an education historian at Stanford University. “What I think the pandemic has done is to enlarge the option for those who don’t want to attend school in person, [or] who cannot because of illness.” 

Last fall, as schools returned to predominantly in-person instruction, the vast majority of students returned to school buildings. A small but significant group of families wanted to remain virtual, though, and many districts expanded their virtual schools or launched temporary remote options.

Now, some are keeping or expanding virtual learning, turning it into a longer-term option for that slice of their student population.

Montgomery County and Prince George’s County schools in Maryland, for example, are continuing virtual schools that they created during the pandemic. Chicago will continue to run a virtual academy for students with certain medical conditions.

A number of other large districts, including San Diego, Philadelphia, and Clark County, Nevada, will maintain expanded versions of their virtual schools. All three added elementary grades during the pandemic.

Others are building something from scratch. In New York City, one of the few large districts that didn’t offer virtual learning this year, officials plan to launch two new virtual schools this fall that will initially serve ninth graders. 

“There are some folks who are absolutely opposed to this — it’s not for them,” said Carolyne Quintana, who oversees teaching and learning for the district. “And for the folks who absolutely need it, it is.”

Elsewhere, officials have raised concerns as plans to launch new schools came together. In Los Angeles, then-interim superintendent Megan Reilly was blunt when she told the school board earlier this year: “We all believe that in-person education is absolutely the best.”

Despite that, she recommended starting six new virtual schools, framing it as a way to accommodate families with lingering pandemic safety concerns, which could stave off more enrollment losses. Nearly 18,000 students, or 4% of the student population, enrolled in the district’s remote learning option this year, an “independent study” program that suffered staffing shortages and drew complaints about lesson quality.

Reilly faced some pushback — “When do kids get to go poke each other and run around and throw balls at each other?” George McKenna, a former district teacher and principal, asked rhetorically. But the board, with McKenna the sole dissenter, ultimately signed off on the plan.

Research on virtual schooling remains largely discouraging. Prior to the pandemic, students who opted into virtual charter schools tended to have lower test score gains and graduation rates. Studies during the pandemic showed that students who weren’t attending school in person fell further behind academically than those who returned to classrooms.

Data from Chicago Public Schools showed students enrolled in its virtual program this year had lower-than-average attendance. In Detroit, the district’s virtual school struggled to stay fully staffed, and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said recently that about one in three students both failed a core class and were chronically absent during the first semester. 

Officials say improvements are coming, but some families plan to change course after a frustrating virtual year. “They really hate going to school because they’re not being taught,” Sharon Kelso, a caregiver and special education advocate, said of her two nephews in Detroit. 

Some have questioned the pre-pandemic research findings because students who choose an online school may face other challenges that push down their test scores. Others say that while virtual school might not be ideal, it could help keep some students in school.

“Certain students might be dropping out in lieu of remote learning,” said Bree Dusseault, an analyst with the Center on Reinventing Public Education. 

In Dallas, Morris is trying to head off some of those concerns. Elementary-age children will spend more live time on video than older students, and staffers are already planning in-person activities — something potential students often inquire about.

“They want to know about the clubs, and the field trips, and the opportunities to connect, because I think that’s what they missed the most in the virtual experience,” Morris said. “We want the kids to feel a part of something.”

Other large districts have scrapped or chosen not to expand their virtual options. Fairfax County in Virginia is dropping a virtual program available to students with specific medical conditions this year. Wake County, North Carolina is also eliminating its virtual school, while Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools will begin phasing out its virtual option for elementary students while keeping it for older grades. 

“We believe two things — our schools are safe for all students and our students are more successful learning in person,” Fairfax County officials told families in March when officials announced the upcoming end of the virtual program, which enrolled less than 400 students this year. 

Hawaii’s state-wide district will allow individual schools to offer remote learning, but officials decided against creating a standalone virtual school for now.

Other districts are rolling back the live instruction they offered to virtual learners, reverting to a more self-paced strategy they employed before the pandemic.

In Duval County, Florida, educators are expecting some 2,000 students at the district’s standalone virtual school next year, many more than the few hundred students it served pre-pandemic. Live virtual instruction will no longer be available, and teachers anticipate some younger students will struggle to stay on top of their schoolwork without the typical school schedule they followed this year.

That’s why teachers are planning to host extra virtual “success sessions” with students and their families, and offer in-person help when needed.

“Brick and mortar might be a better option for some students,” said Leslie Jones, who teaches 12th graders at the school. “But if they are with us, their teachers are doing everything they can to build that rapport.”

Ethan Bakuli contributed reporting.

Kalyn Belsha is a national education reporter based in Chicago. Contact her at kbelsha@chalkbeat.org.

Matt Barnum is a national reporter covering education policy, politics, and research. Contact him at mbarnum@chalkbeat.org.

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