The enrollment in virtual schools continued to increase, even when Covid declined, reveal new data – the 74 | Team Cansler


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Kristy Maxwell realized that something had to change when she picked up her son Levi from school and found out that his teacher had left the autistic kindergarten teacher alone, crying and penciling under his desk.

The Michigan mother switched her son to a school that had a good reputation for students with disabilities, but things did not improve. Since Levi was a “math genius”, the employees ignored his problems to make contacts and his difficulties to deal with the loud sounds of the cafeteria, said Maxwell. Meanwhile, she has been unsuccessful in getting the school to screen her child for autism in order to provide the additional services required by law for students with disabilities. The mother worried that her son might never get the study support he needed.

Then, in March 2020, the pandemic moved all classes of his school online and forced the family to an accidental experiment with a new educational model.

During the distance school, Levi was able to get personal attention when he was sitting next to his mother, who had to temporarily stop her work as a masseuse due to Covid. His younger sister, who has to deal with anxiety, could take breaks to stroke the family’s dogs.

“When everything was closed and we were forced to become virtually … my two younger children did really well,” said Maxwell.

“We decided afterwards because the two younger children cut out so well outside of a brick and mortar [school]Keeping them virtually would be the best way to help them academically. ”

Kristy Maxwell, left, with her family, including Levi, in orange. (Kristy Maxwell)

The Maxwells, whose three children are now 9, 11 and 15 years old, are among the thousands of families in the United States who have tried virtual learning for the first time during pandemic.

New data shows online schools have had staying power beyond the pandemic that few observers suspected. While some virtual academies have been in operation for decades, they experienced a well-documented enrollment explosion in 2020-21, the first full school year after Covid, when many virus-critical parents tried to protect their children from infection . But in the following year, even when the inpatient schools were completely reopened and the mask obligation fell, remote schools largely kept their pandemic registration gains-and in many cases added new places.

On average of 10 states, enrollment in virtual schools rose to 170 % of the level before pandemic in the period 2020-21 and then continued to increase 176 % in the period 2021-22, according to the data received from The 74.

The new figures contribute to a far -reaching understanding, because while several reports have documented the increase in new fully virtual schools and independent remote academies that are offered by districts, sparse analyzes have provided a national image of school enrollment at these schools.

“Looks like it is liable”

The trend shows that virtual learning has become more than a temporary model for overcoming pandemic for many families – but a long -term option preferred by more and more people.

“It looks like it’s going to stay,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “In some states, the numbers have risen temporarily and then fallen again somewhat. But overall when [families] staying for a few years I would expect them to keep it going.”

Six states in the data set-Arkansas, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota and North Carolina-recorded successive virtual enrollment increases year after year, while four-Florida, Oregon, Wisconsin and Wyoming-2020-21 a dramatic increase in 2021- 22.

“We didn’t know what to expect afterwards [mask] Mandates have been revoked, but we have maintained our enrollment and continue to grow,” said Jodell Glagnow, attendance administrator at Wisconsin Virtual Academy.

In Iowa, at an extreme, virtual school enrollment rose to 373% of pre-pandemic levels in 2020-21, and rose even further to 388% in 2021-22. The growth represented an increase in the number of licensed online schools in the state from three to nearly two dozen during that period, a spokesman for the state Department of Education said.

The data represents K-12 students enrolled in standalone online academies and excludes students taking distance learning provided by their home school. However, the scope varies slightly from state to state. For example, the Florida count reflects enrollment in the statewide Florida Virtual School, while the Arkansas count comes from the two approved virtual charters, and the Michigan count includes students from all 88 providers approved for online instruction.

Oregon was the only state to provide disaggregated data showing that white students were overrepresented in the state’s virtual schools in 2020-21, while students with disabilities, people coping with poverty, and English learners were underrepresented. Overall enrollment rose to 172% of pre-pandemic levels this year and declined slightly over the next year.

GeRita Connor runs Lowcountry Connections Academy, a virtual school in South Carolina. Her school opened last year to meet overwhelming demand for online instruction after reaching capacity at her partner academy, South Carolina Connections, which contracts with the same for-profit provider, Connections LLC, an offshoot of publishing and testing giant Pearson .

The families who were newcomers to online academies like hers in the fall of 2021 often wouldn’t even have considered distance learning before COVID, she said.

“I think what’s happened during the pandemic is that families have become more aware of the virtual learning option,” Connor said. “[It] really opened the doors to those possibilities.”

For the Maxwells in Michigan, Levi remained in the online option that maintained his school in 2020-21, then transferred to the statewide Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy in the fall of 2021. His younger sister, Aria, briefly returned to school in person, but switched back to a district-run online option in January 2022. In September she was able to join Great Lakes to her brother.

Lazy apples?

Experts warn that the emerging trend could lead to poor academic results. Virtual academies were far from Covid in some states, often with lack of lack of success. And during the pandemic, students who spent most of their time outside of face-to-face classes suffered the greatest learning setbacks.

Research by the US Government Accountability Office, using pre-pandemic data, shows that students in online schools perform far worse on academic tests than their in-person counterparts, even after accounting for factors such as race, poverty level and disability status.

Heather Schwartz, a Rand Corporation researcher who has been studying virtual schools during the pandemic, is now seeing more and more families signing up for online learning.

“Until we have evidence, the virtual schools — at least for some students — may be doing just as well as traditional public schools, yeah I’m worried,” she said.

However, participating families and administrators attest a positive influence on the learning of the students in many virtual schools. Levi Maxwell, for example, saw how his grades have dramatically improved when learning online, reports his mother. Last year he wrote his first story alone after struggling with English for years.

But Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University and an outspoken critic of virtual academies, believes the negative experiences outweigh the positives and is frustrated that student enrollment continues to grow.

“This contradicts market theory,” he said. “You’d think consumers would wake up and say, ‘I’m not going to buy these apples. Are you lazy. I’ll get another producer.’ But they are not.”

He also warns that many virtual schools — including Connections Academies — have nonprofit “shells” that contract with for-profit governing organizations. These contracts often include costly management fees and six- or seven-digit salaries for top executives, he said.

“These so -called non -profit organizations are simply incredibly profitable,” said Miron.

“As the sector grows and gets bigger, I believe the risk for the federal government increases in terms of accountability,” added GAO Education Director Jacqueline Nowicki.

Virtual schools, real relationships

The main concern of Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education is whether students who enroll in online schools are losing face-to-face encounters with teachers. Many remote academies rely on asynchronous lessons and offer less hours live lessons than traditional schools.

“Virtual learning can be a great option, but it is not a substitute for contact with adults,” she said. “You have to make sure that the virtual program has a lot of student-teacher interaction.”

In their virtual academy in Michigan, the Maxwells feel that their needs are well met. The school has provided more specialists to meet the special needs of their children than their conventional schools ever have, said Kristy Maxwell. But she admits that the energy it takes to keep her kids engaged throughout the school day can be significant.

“It’s a lot of work on my part,” the mother admitted.

In a nearby Great Lakes state, seventh grader Helena Warren was also pleased with a recent transfer to Wisconsin Virtual Academy. She transitioned in January 2022 and appreciates the amount of face-to-face time she gets with her teachers via Zoom breakout rooms or phone calls when she needs extra help.

The middle schooler switched because the work at her old school was too “simple and easy,” she said, which caused her to switch off and get bad grades, including some Cs and Ds. Now her grades are better and the assignments are more challenging. When she masters a concept, her teacher asks her to explain it to her classmates, which she enjoys.

“She’s doing better stuff than she would be doing in a regular school,” said her proud mum Melody Warren, who plans to keep Helena online indefinitely.

“I think she’ll go through high school,” Warren said.


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