COVID gives virtual learning a stronger foothold in Michigan as most students return to classrooms

Students who were enrolled last year in a pilot version of PrepNet Virtual Academy, a new virtual charter school, participated in enrichment activities at an in-person school in the same charter network. (Courtesy Samantha Lynch)

Most students are expected back in classrooms this fall, but the number of students learning via computer will likely remain well above pre-pandemic levels.

Many Michigan families and educators experienced virtual learning for the first time last school year. That exposure — combined with ongoing COVID concerns — is likely to shape virtual learning in Michigan this fall and for years to come, experts say.

Questions remain about online education, from inequities in access to poor academic results. Students in fully online schools are disproportionately from low-income families, and have historically struggled. Some observers worry, too, that expanding online learning will boost profits for charter school companies.

Nonetheless, Michigan’s virtual learning landscape is changing rapidly.

Some of those changes are tied to the pandemic: Educators are calling for changes to the rules governing emergency remote learning in the event of a COVID outbreak.

Other changes could be with Michigan for much longer.

The pandemic gave educators a crash course in virtual learning tools that are valuable even when students are learning mostly in person, said Sarayhu Bethamcherla, 17, a senior at Troy High School and president of the Michigan Association of Student Councils, who is returning to in-person learning for her senior year.

“I think virtual learning is sustainable. So many formats they used can carry over this next year, and it will be even more beneficial to us,” she said.

Beyond traditional classrooms, full-time online instruction is expanding. At least 18 new full-time virtual schools have opened since the start of the pandemic, aiming to serve COVID-wary parents and the small number of families who discovered that they prefer online classes.

“This coming fall will be the first opportunity since the pandemic began where we can really see what virtual learning might look like post-pandemic,” said Michael Barbour, a professor at Touro University California who studies virtual instruction

During the pandemic, many districts switched several times between in-person and virtual instruction. The difference between the two was often minimal: Teachers did the same things on a video conference that they would have done in a classroom.

This fall, some districts are taking a different approach, opening virtual schools with staff and instructional methods focused exclusively on online learning.

“They’re actually planning online learning, whereas over the last year and a half we were just putting Band-Aids on things,” Barbour said.

Like last year, it appears COVID outbreaks may force some students to spend at least some time learning online.

With both methods of instruction — full-time virtual and emergency remote — set to play a role in students’ lives this year, here are some of the key issues facing virtual learning.

Full-time online schools

Although there’s little data backing the academic outcomes of full-time virtual schools, their numbers are growing — a major expansion of the state’s online learning systems.

“What we learned from the pandemic was that there were a significant number of students who really benefited from the virtual experience,” said RJ Webber, assistant superintendent for academic services at Novi Community School District, which is opening a full-time virtual school this fall. He said students benefit from virtual learning if, for example, they feel extremely anxious at school or have another medical issue that makes it difficult to participate in classes. Online learning also makes sense for students who need a more flexible schedule.

Before the pandemic, about 1.7% of Michigan students, or 25,800 total, were learning exclusively online, more than any state besides Pennsylvania, according to Evergreen Education Group, a consulting group focused on virtual learning.

The total grew during the last school year. Enrollment at full-time virtual schools swelled by nearly 10,000 even as total enrollment declined statewide.

Many of those students ended up in online charter schools, which operate some of the state’s largest K-12 virtual schools. Some of the largest enrollment increases during the pandemic went to online charters.

Now, many large traditional districts want to compete with online charters and with the dozens of traditional districts that have already opened virtual schools. The new virtual schools that opened during the pandemic, most run by traditional districts, represent a roughly 20% increase in the total number of all schools, a bigger jump than any annual uptick since the first Michigan schools began offering exclusively online classes more than a decade ago. 

“We saw that there were a small but significant number of students who were opting for virtual high school after finishing eighth grade in our schools,” said David Mustonen, a spokesman for Dearborn Public Schools, a large district in suburban Detroit that is opening a fully virtual school this fall. “We began to look at ways to say, ‘Well, how can we compete with that?’”

Dearborn expects 485 of its roughly 20,000 students to sign up for its new virtual program this fall. Novi anticipates 375. National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter operator that is opening a new online school, hopes to enroll 850 students in grades K-12.

Detroit is getting into the game too, after the city school board unanimously approved a new full-time virtual school earlier this week.

“We believe the virtual school is here to stay,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “It’s something to build out for the future for students who thrive in the virtual space.”

Barbour said he’s glad more school districts are opting to compete with for-profit virtual schools. Virtual programs receive the same amount of funding as brick and mortar schools but are cheaper to run, and Barbour worries that private companies won’t reinvest the savings in students.

The size of those savings remains to be seen. The true number of families who will opt for virtual education post-pandemic won’t be known until the threat of COVID dwindles, said John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group.

Programs “were running surveys when pandemic was more front of mind” for parents, he said. “There will still be an increase in full-time virtual enrollments but maybe a smaller number than you’d think.”

Also unclear: How will the new virtual schools perform academically?

Such schools have a poor track record in Michigan. Students who take classes from these programs fail roughly half of their classes, a fail rate far above the state average, experts say. Studies of online charter schools find generally poor academic results.

But those arguments don’t take into account recent improvements to virtual learning as well as the quality of different programs, said Melissa VanKlompenburg, principal of the PrepNet Virtual Academy. The academy is a new K-12 virtual school that will be run by National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter school operator that already runs dozens of schools in Michigan.

She said her school plans to hire 30 teachers and 30 paraprofessionals to serve 850 students, giving them roughly one adult per 14 students. She said lots of contact with students is key to ensuring that they complete their virtual coursework.

“Students and teachers can learn how to communicate, how to build relationships, how to create a culture that stands up strong education in the virtual world,” she said.

After a year of frequent interruptions caused by COVID outbreaks, school officials say full-time virtual schools are drawing some families with the promise of stability.

“The virtual school allows parents who are worried about the possible switches to choose a consistent learning model for the year,” said Catherine Woolman, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Port Huron Area School District, which is opening a virtual school this fall. 

Emergency remote learning

Most students last year experienced some form of emergency remote learning. Many will likely do so again this year as school officials work to limit outbreaks linked to a new, more infectious COVID variant.

Yet districts still don’t know how much flexibility they’ll have to shift to virtual learning in the event of outbreaks. The state Legislature allowed for such shifts last year, but rules for this year aren’t in place yet, making it hard for administrators to plan.

Martin Ackley, an Michigan Department of Education spokesperson, said the department will issue guidance soon to allow districts to shift to virtual instruction if they are facing outbreaks this year.

Another issue facing emergency remote learning: Attendance rules, which some educators say were overly burdensome last year. To mark a student present, teachers had to document two one-on-one, academic-focused interactions per week to count a student as present.

Sarah Giddings, a high school social studies and English teacher in the Washtenaw Intermediate District, said that while individual interactions matter, the state’s narrow definition of the interactions can make conversations feel disingenuous.

“Talking to a kid about where they’re going to sleep tonight and how they’re doing after they just lost a family member to COVID doesn’t count as an interaction, so after that I have to be, ‘So, how about that U.S. history assignment?’ and I feel horrible,” Giddings said.

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