Jun 25 2021

The Rise of Virtual-Only K–12 Schools

As education leaders begin to look beyond the pandemic, some students are opting into online learning for good.

When officials at Fort Smith Public Schools in Arkansas began preparing an online-only option for fall 2020, they expected to have about 500 sign-ups from the district’s 14,000 students. Instead, online enrollment hit 3,500.

“As we got closer, we were surprised to see our estimate keep growing,” says Gary Udouj, director of career education and district innovation for FSPS. “We were very quickly training staff and getting our resources together to make sure all of our students had the technology they needed.”

The district paid teachers a $500 stipend to complete a virtual training program standardized on a single learning management system, and it implemented a third-party online curriculum. “We were definitely building the airplane as we were taking off,” Udouj says.

A remarkable achievement considering that, when the pandemic first hit last spring, many students lacked internet connectivity, and in trying to fill the gap, the district had to distribute 4,000 paper instruction packets each week.

Since then, FSPS educators have delivered 2,500 mobile hotspots to students and their families, turned school parking lots into Wi-Fi access hubs and ensured that all students have their own Chromebooks. Much of the district’s online instruction has been delivered via Zoom, and teachers frequently make use of free, game-based learning platforms such as Kahoot. “The students are very tech savvy,” says Samantha Hall, assistant director of district innovation. “When you teach them the basics, they learn very quickly.”

The district then hired teachers, many internally, specifically to staff the virtual program. Now, as officials plan to make the virtual option permanent, they are seeking ways to continuously improve. The district is running focus groups with parents to obtain valuable feedback, and next year teachers will create a district-built virtual curriculum around state standards.

“We’ve been looking at a virtual option for a few years,” notes Martin Mahan, deputy superintendent. “We’ve found there’s a certain population of students who thrive in a virtual setting, and the pandemic has forced us to look at things through a different lens. We’re trying to find the value in every assignment, and this really caused us to look more at what is being taught, and how.”

Virtual Learning Provides a Better Fit for Some Students

Fort Smith Public Schools is not alone. While many parents, students and teachers across the country have leapt at the opportunity to get back into physical classrooms as quickly as possible, others have found virtual learning to be a great fit.

This has led a number of school districts to seize the moment and accelerate plans for virtual-only schools that will continue to educate students remotely, even after the pandemic ends. A fall 2020 RAND survey of district leaders found that 1 in 5 schools have already adopted or plan to adopt virtual schooling after the pandemic.

“Many students who would never have seen themselves as online students realized the model was working better for them,” says Joseph South, chief learning officer for ISTE, an organization that advocates for technology in education. “Some are realizing that this is how they want school to go for them, and the districts realize they can either lose these students or open their own virtual schools at the district level.”

South notes that virtual charter schools have existed for years, but individual districts are just now starting to get in on the game. Students, he says, may opt for a district-run virtual school over other online options as a way to stay connected to their communities and participate in extracurricular activities with their friends. But, South says, it is important for new virtual schools to train teachers to tailor instruction for a remote model.

298,000

The number of K–12 students in the U.S. who were enrolled in full-time virtual schools before the coronavirus pandemic

Source: National Education Policy Center, “Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019: Executive Summary,” May 2019

“Most schools have robust technology to support virtual learning for students,” South says. “The real issue is professional learning, so teachers can do this well. That’s what is ultimately going to determine their success or failure, much more than the infrastructure.”

READ MORE: Learn how to close the professional development gap for K–12 educators.

Educators Emphasize Competency-Based Learning in Online Classes

Jordan School District in Utah is launching full virtual elementary, middle and high schools this fall, and it isn’t just replicating in-person instruction. Spencer Campbell, principal of Kelsey Peak Virtual Middle School, says that educators are moving to competency-based learning, letting kids take advantage of the flexibility offered by a remote learning model.

“We’re shifting away from an emphasis on the time spent in class,” Campbell says. “Typically, you get 45 minutes in a period, but we’re now looking at learning in terms of the whole week. So, a student who excels in a certain area can finish everything on Monday or Tuesday, and then spend the rest of the week working in an area where they struggle.”

The district is leaning on a mix of technologies — including a learning management system, Zoom, Chromebooks and online learning programs — to deliver remote instruction. But more important than the tools themselves are the ways educators are designing their instruction.

The district is in the process of implementing a consistent course design across all grades, so that students and parents will know exactly what to expect when they log in. Ross Menlove, principal of Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary School, says teachers are being intentional about getting their students to talk as much as possible.

RELATED: Schools must work toward digital equity to provide meaningful environments for SEL.

“We recognize that kids need that social interaction,” Menlove says. “They need to be verbal, they need to be talking to each other. We have training around increasing student engagement through conversation.”

Menlove adds that students in the virtual schools can choose to come to campus for music class, STEM programs, physical education and one-on-one academic help.

This year, around 12,000 of the district’s 60,000 students opted for online learning. Officials expect that number to drop to around 1,200 next year — but, they note, those students will be in a remote model because they want to learn that way, rather than being forced into it by a raging pandemic.

Spencer Campbell
Going forward, there will be much more student choice, more flexibility and improved instructional design.”

Spencer Campbell Principal, Kelsey Peak Virtual Middle School

“You have students who might not have made this leap on their own, but they’ve been successful with it,” Campbell says. “Going forward, there will be much more student choice, more flexibility and improved instructional design. Teachers will be able to adjust based on what they’ve learned over the past year.”

Schools Turn a Temporary Fix into a Permanent Fixture

Beth Rayl, chief academic officer at Plymouth-Canton Community Schools in Michigan, was a young teacher in the late ’90s when her principal asked her to learn to teach virtually. At the time, she thought there was no way her students could learn as much from her over the internet as they could in person.

Now, Rayl is helping lead the effort to turn P-CCS’ temporary virtual academies into permanent virtual schools. The district was already looking at launching virtual schools before the pandemic hit, Rayl says, as a way to help meet the needs of different learners.

“What I learned was, some of the kids who sit in a classroom and don’t share their voice have so much to share,” she says. “When you have a 55- minute bell schedule, it doesn’t always give students space to have that moment. With students for whom the existing system isn’t a right fit, we have to ask, what system could we build that would fit those students’ needs?”

For Rayl, the answer is online learning, which allows P-CCS to maximize student success. This year, 3,700 of the district’s 17,000 students participated in virtual academies, and Rayl expects between 700 and 1,000 students to choose virtual learning next fall.

To support success in online learning, the district deployed 4,600 new student devices (a mix of Chromebooks and tablets), bringing the district’s total to more than 12,000. It also partnered with Dell for a virtual desktop infrastructure initiative to provide remote access to robust computing resources. And last summer, the district offered 53 professional development sessions on technology and online learning.

Rayl has some advice for districts looking to create their own online schools: Listen to your students. For example, she notes that a previous virtual program she supported held an online learning lab at the unlikely hour of 8 p.m. on Fridays at the suggestion of students, and it was a hit. “Sometimes, we need to get out of our own heads as adults and have a conversation with young people and ask what works best for them,” she says. “When we have those conversations, surprising things happen.”

WATCH NOW: How do students feel about the remote learning experience?

virtual students roblox illustration
Illustrations by Tracey J. Lee