Here Come the Virtual Academies
A few weeks after Kali Klingler—and millions of other students across the country—had started remote learning last spring, her district announced that its school buildings would remain closed for the rest of the academic year. They would finish out the semester online.
It came as a bit of a shock to most. Some students experienced confusion and panic. Others were devastated, realizing they wouldn’t get to finish their sports season or attend prom or see their friends again. But Kali, if she was being honest, mostly just felt relieved.
The high school sophomore’s grades were not where they needed to be when schools first closed for the coronavirus pandemic. She had been failing a number of her classes, she says, mostly because she had missed so many days of school—30 days, by her more conservative estimates, but possibly as many as 50—due to a medical condition that left her uncomfortable at times and in severe abdominal pain at others.
Even as haphazard and harried as remote learning was in those early days, Kali was never marked as “tardy” or “absent” when she was feeling unwell. Instead, her success depended on whether she finished her work or didn’t. And she always did. She found that, outside the walls of the school building (“real school,” as she calls in-person learning), she was actually a much better student.
“I was falling behind. I was failing everything,” the 16-year-old recalls of her pre-pandemic academic standing. “I realized that as soon as everything went online, I had every single assignment for every single class available at home. I was able to get a lot of my grades up.”
For the first time all school year, the 10th-grader suddenly found herself with straight As. “I was actually able to get everything done,” she says.
Kali took to online learning immediately. Not every student has had such a positive experience, though. In fact, most have not. But a meaningful number of K-12 students have found that the arrangement works well for them.
Experts, researchers and educators talk about that small but significant percentage of kids who tend to “thrive” in the virtual environment. And given that tens of millions of students were involuntarily enrolled in a sort of pilot version of online learning for much of the last year, more families than ever are realizing that they prefer it and are asking their children’s schools to accommodate them moving forward. They want full-time online learning, indefinitely.
The result is that dozens, if not hundreds, of school districts have announced plans to do just that. They are launching “virtual academies” this fall that are expected to outlast the pandemic, offering an arrangement for students who prefer to learn at home, at their own pace, and with less structure and more independence than many traditional school experiences provide.
These include big school systems such as Los Angeles, Houston and Las Vegas, but also mid-sized and small districts, who want neither the students they serve, nor the dollars that follow them, to disappear.
Meanwhile, other high-profile districts and states—New York City, New Jersey, California, Illinois and Massachusetts among them—have swung in the other direction, seeking to severely restrict the number and types of families who can access remote learning this fall.
‘It’s Good for the Kids It’s Good for’
Who are the students that want to continue learning online? District leaders insist that those enrolling in their newly minted virtual academies span grade levels, backgrounds, interests and motivations. But in the last 15 months, some characteristics and commonalities of online-preferring students have emerged.
Some high-school students are enrolling for the flexible schedules, which allow them to keep the jobs they started during the pandemic to help support their families. Older students may also elect to continue virtual learning so they can care for younger siblings.
Then there are students with medical conditions, like Kali, who are better suited to online learning; students who are more introverted and prefer working alone; and students who have demanding hobbies, such as travel sports leagues or burgeoning acting careers that require their time during the standard 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours. Some students, adolescents in particular, say they do their best work late at night. And many students, according to administrators who have surveyed their school communities about interest in virtual learning, say that they prefer online learning because it helps them better manage their anxiety.
There also seems to be disproportionate interest among students and families of color, some of whom feel that the traditional school system has failed their child. “They may have a lower trust of districts and schools,” says Bree Dusseault, practitioner-in-residence at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research center, “and are not feeling seen or served in a way reflective of what their children need.”
Jordan School District, the school system outside of Salt Lake City that Kali attends, has seen many combinations of these explanations.
For Kali, the benefit of virtual learning isn’t just that she can access her school work on her own terms and complete it at her own pace. She likes that she can get up to use the bathroom when she needs to, that she can eat when she is hungry and that she can finally get eight hours of sleep. That last part is a big one, Kali says, since previously she could never seem to get enough sleep.
Kali is also introverted and says she often experiences social anxiety.
“I don’t need a lot of social interaction to make me happy,” she explains, laughing shyly.
Indeed, her mother, Trina Duerksen, says that of her six children, Kali tends to depend less on the social aspects of school than her siblings.
“Some kids live for that. My older daughter, about the third month into COVID-19, said, ‘I just miss my friends. I want to go to band class,’” Duerksen recalls. “For Kali, it’s not that she doesn’t have friends, but she doesn’t look at it as her end-all be-all in school.”
Kali prefers spending time with her family and playing with her cats, Buddy and Ruby. She also likes doing crafts. She knits. She draws. And she has recently begun dabbling in polymer claymations.
“I don’t like going out very much,” she says. “I love talking to people, but I don’t need to go somewhere every day and meet someone every day to be happy. … I feel kind of awkward outside of my house.”
Ammon Wiemers, principal at Kings Peak High School, part of the new virtual academy at Jordan School District that Kali has enrolled in for the fall, says that people keep trying to identify the “type” of students for whom virtual learning works, but that it’s not so simple.
“There are no blanket statements,” he says. “It’s good for the kids it’s good for.”
Students who are disciplined and can finish their assignments without the built-in structure of a classroom will be more likely to succeed, Wiemers says. Students who can learn and work independently, who can manage their time well—these are all indicators of a good match. But students who go in thinking virtual learning is the easier option, “they’ll find out quickly that’s not the case.”
At Jordan School District, some of the students who are seeing the best outcomes from virtual learning are English language learners. One student who immigrated from Colombia was struggling to keep up with his classes because of how quickly his teachers spoke and moved through content. He was failing a number of his courses. Since switching to virtual learning last year, he’s improved his grades and is now passing all of his classes, even excelling in some.
With online learning, that student is able to translate his assignment instructions in Canvas, the district’s learning management system, or pause and rewind through video lectures as needed.
“The tools [English language learners] can use in online courses would be way less practical in a classroom,” says Steven Park, a teacher at Kings Peak High School. “With the pacing and technology in the classroom, you’re not going to get closed captioning and you’re not going to be able to pause your teacher, slow them down or speed them up.”
Doubling Down on Virtual Programming
A number of districts had their eyes on virtual learning programs well before the pandemic. Private, for-profit virtual schools have attracted tens of thousands of students in recent years. Many district leaders felt that offering a virtual option for families who wanted that kind of flexibility and independence would become increasingly popular, if not necessary.
About 10 years ago, Jordan School District joined a consortium of six districts in Utah that, together, offered online courses through a program called Utah Students Connect. At the time, online programming was in such low demand that none of the districts could offer an independent virtual school. But that has changed. And it was changing even before COVID-19, Wiemers said.
In the fall, Kings Peak High School will serve about 200 students enrolled in Jordan School District, as well as a handful of students from public and charter schools in the area. Its programming will be markedly different from Utah Students Connect, which has historically provided asynchronous instruction and very limited student-teacher interactions.
Kings Peak, by contrast, will offer two live, synchronous class sessions per week, and each student will have a weekly “advisory period” where they meet with their assigned teacher by video chat for check-ins.
“It’s going to be a better program, because of the live instruction and the teacher-student interaction,” Wiemers says. “We want students to have a high level of independence and a high level of guidance. We still want the students to be primarily responsible for their own learning, but we don’t want it to be, ‘It’s all on you, kid.’”
That is welcome news to Kali, who has been enrolled in Utah Students Connect for this academic year and says she feels like she has had supervisors, not teachers, in her online classes. “I am practically teaching myself everything” in the current program, she says, and thinks she would benefit from more teacher oversight and instruction.
Jefferson County Public Schools, outside of Denver, had also offered virtual learning to students before the pandemic, through a virtual academy for grades 6-12. Out of 83,000 students in the district, the academy enrolls about 350 full-time, and instruction is primarily asynchronous.
In January, the district surveyed its families about their interest in a new online-learning program for the 2021-22 school year and for after the pandemic. Based on the results, Matthew Walsh, the lead administrator for the district’s new virtual learning program, estimates that about 4,000 families are interested.
The existing virtual academy will continue in its asynchronous format, but for students who want online learning with more support, the Remote Learning Program will be a better fit. The new program features synchronous instruction and a daily class schedule, essentially “recreating the in-person experience in a remote environment,” Walsh says.
So far, 740 students have enrolled in the Remote Learning Program, ranging from pre-K through 12th grade. Some of those families are inevitably enrolling out of fear of COVID-19 or health circumstances that have not yet been assuaged by vaccines or the reduction in cases, Walsh says. But many others are telling him, “This is the type of learning that works for me—there’s flexibility, and it reduces the social anxiety and drama that goes on in schools,” he says. “Those folks are saying, ‘No, this is what we want moving forward.’”
At Plymouth-Canton Community Schools in Michigan, there was no virtual learning program in place when COVID-19 hit the U.S. But one was already in the works. Beth Rayl, the district’s chief academic officer, was brought on in 2019 to help plan for, build and eventually launch a virtual academy in fall 2021. In some ways, the arrival of the pandemic accelerated those plans. In other ways, it held things up—the district now plans to launch its academy in fall 2022.
“The genesis of this plan is supporting all students’ needs,” Rayl says. “We didn’t necessarily have families clamoring for a virtual option, but we did recognize that there are a lot of families for whom the traditional high school experience, middle school experience and even elementary school experience is not the best fit.”
Social Costs and Changing Relationships
Online learning—and certainly the type most students have experienced during the pandemic—is not without drawbacks.
For one, there are social costs. Even Kali, who admits to not needing as much socialization as many of her peers, says she misses meeting other students in class and building a rapport with her teachers.
Wiemers, the principal at Kings Peak High School in Utah, acknowledges that virtual school does not provide an equivalent social experience as in-person schooling, but says that for many children, that’s not an issue. They may have friends from church, or in the neighborhood, or on recreational sports leagues.
“Students who enroll in virtual school but don’t have those social networks built in—we are worried about those students,” he says.
As for the student-teacher relationship, districts predict that will be a critical determinant in whether their programs are successful, and they’re hiring accordingly.
Walsh, at Jefferson County Public Schools, says that he is looking for “collaborators and relationship builders” to fill out his staff.
“We’re focusing on getting this group of absolute rockstar teachers,” he says. “A great teacher is a great teacher, in-person or remotely. We can teach the remote skills. We need someone who wants to build relationships with families.”
Both Walsh and Wiemers refute the idea that the student-teacher relationship is bound to suffer in remote learning. On the contrary, they believe such relationships can be stronger online than in person.
“Teachers will know students better this way, talking individually on Zoom,” Wiemers says.
Walsh says that if anything, students and teachers—and parents and teachers—have connected better in the last year than they did before.
“Everyone predicted, ‘Oh, there’s going to be big disconnects,’” says Walsh. “That’s not what we’re hearing, and it’s not what our data is showing. Parents and students feel closer to their teachers than they ever have. We’re excited to build upon that.”
Still, online learning will be inaccessible for some families. There are inequities baked into it. By definition, only students with access to high-quality internet and up-to-date technology devices can participate. And then their success may depend on how much support they have at home, from parents, caregivers or older siblings. This is especially true for—but not exclusive to—younger children, who may need adult supervision as they learn online.
“It’s more difficult when there is less parent involvement. We rely on and lean on parents,” Wiemers admits. “Students with a robust parent and home life do well, better than those left without support.”
As she finishes up her junior year of high school, Kali says that online learning is the reason she made the Honor Roll three times this year. She finally had the time and flexibility to do school on her own terms.
“I can get good grades in person, but it would take a lot of work because I’m not physically there enough,” she says, adding that she doesn’t see any difference in the rigor between online and in-person school.
And if her district were to renege on their plans to launch a virtual academy, as some have begun to do? Well, she’d probably just leave and enroll in another virtual school.