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The nationwide experiment with remote education will be a lasting hallmark of the COVID-19 pandemic. But like the pandemic itself, that experiment is far from over.
Just as the nation’s 13,000 school districts geared up for a full, in-person 2021-22 school year, the arrival of the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus saw many districts reinstitute remote learning options, often in response to families’ concerns about the virus and student safety.
In some districts, the plans are short-term alternatives designed to assist worried families while keeping students on track academically. Some are limited to students who are medically vulnerable, others are open to anyone who signs up. Where some programs have been available since the spring, others have been planned and developed for a year or more by districts convinced that online learning offers an opportunity to innovate and improve how we do school.
For Adam Kulaas, who leads Tacoma Online for Washington’s Tacoma Public Schools, that innovation includes personalizing education with “the flexibility to drill down to each and every individual student, meeting them where they are.”
When researchers at the University of Washington’s Center for the Reinvention of Public Education (CRPE) collected data on 100 large and urban school districts in April, they found just over 20 percent planned to offer “some form of a remote option” in the fall. By late July, that number had jumped to 41 percent; by mid-August it had nearly doubled to 79 percent. The options range from “what they were doing before to something entirely new that they were running themselves or they were going to contract with an external provider,” says Bree Dusseault, practitioner-in-residence at CRPE. She is an author of the Center’s report tracking school districts’ responses to the pandemic.
“Virtual schools can start to look very different because there are different ways to pull them off,” Dusseault says.
In late July, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations spiked in Texas’ Travis County and the city of Austin, Austin ISD pushed to create a limited, nine-week virtual program open to any student, kindergarten through sixth grade. The decision came as families whose young children were ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccination “started telling us they were very nervous about coming back to in-person,” says school district spokesperson Cristina Nguyen. “They said ‘Please give us an option.’”
With the return to in-person learning in Texas, the state had opted not to provide funding for students enrolled in virtual learning as it had done the previous year. For Austin ISD, that meant dipping into its reserves to cover approximately $4,500 in state funding for each of the 3,500 students accepted for enrollment in the virtual learning program for the nine-week fall semester.
“We had quite a few constraints in Austin that made this a difficult decision, but at the end of the day, Superintendent Elizalde and the school board saw the value in providing our families this option,” Nguyen says. “We still believe our schools and classrooms are safe and are the best place for our children to learn. However, we also understand that we are still in a pandemic, and students under age 12 can’t be vaccinated. As much as we can have those layers of protection for the older kids—wearing masks, social distancing, getting vaccinated—it becomes more challenging for our younger students.” (Despite an executive order by Texas Governor Greg Abbot banning mandating masks, Austin ISD, like several other Texas districts, issued a requirement in August that masks be worn on all campuses.)
“We see our program as a kind of stopgap measure to help families and students get through this wave of COVID and to stay safe while getting them on a really strong start to the school year,” Nguyen adds. And with an eye toward a vaccination being available for younger children in the coming months, “We expect our students to be back in class in the schools on Jan. 4,” she says.
Continuing an option
Maryland’s Howard County Public School System is taking a longer view of virtual education with its new Digital Education Center. “We’ve offered different forms of digital learning over the past several years, but since COVID, we’ve formalized a districtwide need for virtual learning,” says Bob Cole, coordinator of digital education. “The board of education and the superintendent felt strongly that we needed to continue an option for students who either needed it because it was medically necessary, or they found that they were having success with virtual learning.
“For some students and families, even from a social-emotional perspective, we’re finding that it’s been a positive to have that virtual option,” Cole says.
An initial proposal requested funding for a full-time kindergarten through 12th-grade digital center, accommodating about 1,500 students. However, “due to budgetary constraints and some other factors,” the board approved a reduced budget “capable of serving the 650 students we’re offering the option to for K-6,” Cole says.
The district plans to use local dollars and state and federal grants to fund the program, says Caroline Walker, executive director, program innovation and student well-being. “I don’t believe it would be possible if not for those federal funds,” she adds.
As an education center, students maintain a relationship with their designated home school where they have access to extracurriculars and student support services.
Interest survey data and priority enrollment forms indicate that participation in Howard’s virtual option “is very similar to the overall demographics of our in-person school,” Cole says.
That’s valuable information considering concerns nationwide that bullying, harassment, and various microaggressions may explain why some student populations were slow to abandon virtual learning. When school buildings reopened to students last spring, data collected by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics and the Institute for Education Sciences showed that 51 percent of Asian-American students and 35 percent of Black students continued to learn entirely online compared to 14 percent of white students.
Howard’s virtual school enrollment data hasn’t indicated any preference “specific to race or ethnicity or economic status,” Cole says. “I think parents’ main concern boiled down to the health—whether that’s physical or social-emotional health—of their student, and also making sure that they had the academic opportunities that they are typically accustomed to in Howard County Schools.”
Not a program for everyone
After a year of planning, Indiana’s Fort Wayne Community Schools’ new online-only school welcomed about 250 students, kindergarten through grade 12, in August. The Fort Wayne Virtual Academy is not intended as a temporary addition to the school district but to “be around for a while,” says Krista Stockman, the district’s public information officer.
“We have always known that in-person is the best delivery model for education. As last year went on, that was very evident. But we also did see some students really thrived in the virtual environment, where maybe they didn’t in-person,” she says.
The district heard from parents who said, “‘My child suffers from anxiety and just going to school every day is a trigger for that anxiety. Learning remotely allows them to focus on their academics and not the anxiety they feel every day.” For those students, and those worried about returning to school buildings because of the ongoing pandemic, Stockman says, “We knew we needed to offer something virtual.”
What the district couldn’t do was repeat what it did last year, with a remote learning program based out of every building. The number of teachers handling both in-person and remote instruction “was not going to be sustainable,” she says.
The Virtual Academy application form does not ask why students want to attend, but families must sign an attendance agreement. “We don’t want students to enroll and then completely disengage,” Stockman says. “We went through that last year.” Students with excessive unexcused absences or failing to maintain a passing grade in 80 percent of their classes can lose their placement in the Virtual Academy. “We tried to put a couple of provisions in place, so we don’t have students who are not successful in this kind of a program,” she explains.
School leaders developed the curriculum for the Virtual Academy instead of using an off-the-shelf program. “We think that’s a great benefit for our students,” Stockman says. “We also know this is all new, and everyone has a lot to learn.”
This is year two for Tacoma Online, Tacoma Public Schools’ redesigned, virtual learning program. Approximately 1,200 students, grades K-12, initially enrolled for fall 2021, but the “twists and turns” of the ongoing pandemic are expected to push that number to “a couple of thousand students,” says Kulaas, the school’s principal on special assignment.
With its emphasis on personalized learning, the virtual school has been able to create academic programs for a wide array of learners, from students “who were valedictorian candidates who didn’t need anything from us other than the opportunity to thrive” to students who “desperately needed that one-to-one coaching and support” in navigating content, functioning within the online platform, and accessing resources for them and their families, Kulaas says.
What had once existed as a small, high school reengagement program, Tacoma Online was reauthorized and revamped for the 2020-21 school year in response to the pandemic. It enrolled 5,500 of the district’s 30,000 students, including 600 students with IEPs and 400 English Learners. Among those participants were students whose families were less interested in the new online school’s focus on “maximizing learner growth” and more interested in it as a safe alternative to in-person learning, Kulaas says.
This year, the online school will begin building out its program with an emphasis on developing “active student agency” and partnership in determining the learning experience. Every student will have an individual learning plan and partner with a growth coach or mentor, regularly design and update goals, and reflect on what’s working and what’s not. In addition to regular classes, teachers will meet with students for small group engagements and one-on-one advisories. There are plans for programming with community partners, expanded access to advanced academic offerings, and access to career and technical education courses.
Currently, the program is only open to students enrolled in Tacoma Public Schools, but the district hopes to apply for state authorization as a multi-district provider. “Nothing is set in stone for us,” Kulaas says. “We have enough structure to create consistency, but we will continue to iterate and adapt to student needs.”