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Some districts plan for new full-time virtual schools to outlast the coronavirus pandemic

Some districts plan to hold onto virtual schools even after the pandemic fades. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

Before the pandemic, Patricia Woodward’s son Zion struggled in school. He was a shy kid, someone who didn’t feel comfortable asking questions in front of the whole class. Even when he needed help, the middle-schooler didn’t ask for it. That changed when his school district in Fairfield County, S.C., switched to online learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Online, he has no problem asking the teacher a question,” said Woodward. Zion’s grades picked up, and by the end of the year, he was on the honor roll. So Woodward was excited to learn that, even after most students in Fairfield went back to school in person, the district was opening a full-time virtual school. She enrolled her 14-year-old son there for ninth grade.

The Fairfield County school district might seem like an unlikely place to have embraced virtual instruction. It’s in a rural county in the northern part of the state that has been hit by the closure of key businesses over the years — a Walmart, a Mack Trucks plant manufacturing, a nuclear power construction project — and where 9 in 10 students live in poverty.

When the pandemic arrived, the school district struggled to connect its students to remote learning, as nearly half its households didn’t have high-speed Internet. Even when the district handed out personal hotspots for students, they didn’t work for many families due to poor cell service.

Yet despite all these challenges, the district found something surprising. For some families, virtual learning was still an absolute hit. Parents like Woodward noticed their children worked better away from the distractions and social pressures of in-person school, while others enjoyed being able to see their children’s classes. Starting this school year, the district decided to open a full-time virtual school, one designed to outlast the pandemic.

“This will be the new normal,” said J.R. Green, superintendent of the Fairfield County schools. Fairfield County is far from the only school district where parents have asked for more full-time virtual options.

A Rand Corporation survey conducted in June found 26 percent of districts said they would run a virtual school this year, compared with just 3 percent before the pandemic. The school systems that served primarily families of color — Fairfield County itself is around 90 percent Black — reported particularly high demand from parents for a virtual option.

Yet it remains unclear how many students will remain in virtual learning when the pandemic subsides and whether they should. Research before the pandemic often showed poorer outcomes for students in virtual schools versus brick-and-mortar ones. Only 3 percent of parents, in another Rand survey conducted in July, said they would send their youngest school-age child to full-time virtual school if the pandemic were over.

If virtual schools run by districts become the new normal, their leaders will have to address the pitfalls which have led to poorer outcomes in the past. Fairfield says it has been doing several things to make virtual learning last, including an application process to select the students who are best suited to remote learning, a strong emphasis on the live classes taught by district teachers, and allowing the virtual students to still have access to in-person sports, after-school activities and hands-on vocational courses.

If this small district, despite all of the challenges, can find a way to keep students engaged outside the four walls of a classroom, it may shine a light on how other districts can make virtual schools work as well. The answer to whether a less affluent and rural district can make virtual learning work also has key implications for equity in schools across the United States.

“We need to pull the quality up in virtual schools,” said Heather Schwartz, an author of the Rand surveys, “so that we don’t have yet another form of splintering, fragmenting public school offerings, where we have a lower-quality track in the form of virtual schools relative to in-person schools.”

For Zion, the school day starts at 9 a.m. and lasts until 3 p.m., with a break for lunch. English class and junior ROTC are taught by a district teacher, while history and math are courses in the online platform Edgenuity.

Overall, 190 students are now enrolled in Fairfield’s Virtual Academy, and its classes are taught by 40 teachers. The educators who enjoyed working remotely last year were invited to apply. Most of the elementary teachers at the online school work remotely full time, while the upper-grade teachers split their time between the virtual and in-person schools in the district. It’s just a small portion of students overall, around 8 percent of the district, but higher than what South Carolina has encouraged.

Gov. Henry McMaster (R) pushed hard to return all schools to in-person learning this fall, saying remote learning was “not as good.” The South Carolina budget allows 5 percent of a school district’s students to enroll virtually. If a district exceeds that limit, the state will give around half as much funding per pupil for additional online students.

But administrators said they didn’t have much of a choice. If Fairfield didn’t offer a virtual option, some families would leave the district and enroll in an online charter school. It fits a national trend: 31 percent of leaders in districts that serve primarily students of color said parents “strongly demanded” a fully remote option this year, compared with 17 percent in majority-White schools, according to Rand.

“Our parents were so adamant that if we could not provide them with a virtual option, then they would seek virtual options elsewhere,” said Brandon Dixon, director of Fairfield’s Virtual Academy.

But Fairfield did not let just any student attend the online school. Students had to demonstrate they were a good fit for a virtual learning environment, based on their grades during remote learning and a recommendation from their principal. Parents also had to submit an application and affirm that their child had necessary support at home along with consistent Internet access, which the parents have to provide themselves.

That last part is one of the largest barriers to remote learning in rural areas. Almost one in five rural Americans don’t have access to broadband at the speed considered minimum for basic web use, according to a report this year from the Federal Communications Commission.

Yet there remain plenty of reasons to question whether states should even encourage full-time virtual learning, except for students who are medically vulnerable to the coronavirus. The research paints a grim picture.

The National Education Policy Center, for instance, found that the high school graduation rate last year was only 53 percent for virtual charter schools, which enroll the majority of online students, and 62 percent for virtual schools run by districts. The national average is 85 percent.

Meanwhile, a Brown University study published last year on virtual charter schools in Georgia found that full-time students in the online programs lost the equivalent of around one to two years of learning and reduced their academic chances of graduating from high school by 10 points.

“Before the pandemic, I think there was a lot of skepticism, that maybe it was bad for everybody. Because you look at a lot of the data about virtual learning, and it’s been discouraging,” said Diana Sharp, a senior researcher at RMC Research Corporation who is working on a federally funded study of online learning in three Southern states. Since then, however, schools have realized that “some kids really thrive” with virtual learning.

Fairfield County is trying to ensure that its virtual program keeps the same quality standards as its in-person schools by making sure that, for the most part, students will continue to follow a normal bell schedule and regularly interact with their teachers. There are live classes taught throughout most of the day, every day of the school week except Thursday.

“Our model was probably one of the most difficult models to implement, but it was also one of the most effective,” said superintendent Green. In contrast, a survey in Michigan this spring of educators in 17 virtual schools established before the pandemic found that only 3 percent of the remote teachers said their that classes were mostly synchronous.

Woodward said she was concerned about the Edgenuity courses, as Zion has struggled to know whom to reach out to if he has a question about an assignment. Some parents in other school districts which have used the online platform Edgenuity have criticized the quality of the courses, and the research is unclear on whether they are effective.

Edgenuity spokesperson Tim DeClaire said there is an option for schools to pay for access to more instructional services, including live tutoring and a teacher who is available to respond to all student communications within 24 hours, but the vast majority of school districts, including Fairfield, opt to purchase only the more affordable self-paced course platform.

Woodward says Zion’s grades are good as she plans to keep him in virtual school next semester. However, she still said, “There’s a lot of things he’s probably missing out on by not interacting with more people.”

This story about virtual schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, which is a nonprofit independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. It has partnered with The Washington Post.