Kristy Maxwell realized something had to change when she picked up her son Levi from school and found his teacher had left the autistic kindergarten teacher crying and throwing pencils from under his desk.
The Michigan mother transferred her son to a school that had a good reputation for students with disabilities, but things didn’t improve. Because Levi was a “math genius,” staffers ignored his problems socializing and his difficulty dealing with the loud noises of the cafeteria, Maxwell said. 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 of his school’s classes online, forcing the family to inadvertently experiment with a new educational model.
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During correspondence school, Levi was able to get personal attention by sitting next to his mother, who had to temporarily stop working as a masseuse due to COVID. His younger sister, who struggles with anxiety, might take breaks to pet the family dogs.
“When everything shut down and we were forced to go virtual … my two younger kids did really well,” Maxwell said.
“We decided after that as the two younger kids did so well outside of a brick and mortar [school]keeping them virtual would be the best way to help them academically.”
The Maxwells, whose three children are now 9, 11 and 15, are among the thousands of families across the US who first tried virtual learning during the pandemic and are now sticking with it.
New data shows online schools have had staying power beyond the pandemic that few observers suspected. While some virtual academies have been operational for decades, they experienced a well-documented enrollment explosion in 2020-21, the first full school year after COVID, as many virus-sensitive parents sought to protect their children from infection, and anti-mask families sought ways out of face covering requirements . But the following year, even as residential schools fully reopened and mask requirements fell, outlying schools largely maintained their pandemic enrollment gains — and in many cases added new places.
On average across 10 states, virtual school enrollment rose to 170% of pre-pandemic levels in 2020-21 and then rose further to 176% in 2021-22, according to data obtained by The 74.
The new numbers add to a broader understanding, because while multiple reports have documented the rise of new fully virtual schools and standalone distance learning colleges being offered by districts, sparse analysis has provided a national picture of student enrollment at those schools.
“Looks like it’s going to stick”
The trend shows that for many families, virtual learning has become more than a temporary model to overcome the pandemic – but a long-term option that more and more people prefer.
“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 if [families] staying for a few years I would expect them to keep it going.”
Six states in the dataset — Arkansas, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and North Carolina — saw consecutive year-over-year virtual enrollment increases, while four — Florida, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Wyoming — saw dramatic increases in 2020-21 and a slight decline in 2021- 22
“We didn’t know what to expect after that [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 her brother at Great Lakes.
Related: “Inundated with applications”: No shortage of teachers at virtual schools
Experts warn that the emerging trend could lead to poor academic results. Virtual academies existed in some states well before COVID, often with lackluster track records. 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 to a positive impact on student learning at many virtual schools. Levi Maxwell, for example, has seen his grades improve dramatically while studying online, his mother reports. Last year he wrote his first story alone after years of struggling with English.
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.
“That goes against 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. Those contracts often include costly management fees and six- or seven-figure salaries for top executives, he said.
“These so-called nonprofits are just incredibly profitable,” Miron said.
“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.
Related: Virtual standstill: When an online school in Georgia tried to fire for-profit operator K12, students were locked from their computers
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 heavily on asynchronous instruction and offer fewer hours of live instruction than traditional schools.
“Virtual learning can be a great option, but it’s not a substitute for adult exposure,” she said. “You have to make sure that the virtual program has a lot of student-teacher interaction.”
At their virtual academy in Michigan, the Maxwells feel 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.
Related: Many distance learning options will close when the school reopens in fall 2022
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.