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Virtual learning is the new fault line in education: It’s either on the way out or on the rise

Prekindergarten student Logan Strauss participates in a virtual class at home in New Jersey. His family would like him to continue learning virtually until he is vaccinated. (Karen Strauss)
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Deanna Nye is not ready to send her children back into classrooms come fall, even though she knows the worst of the pandemic may be over. Her 8-year-old twins have medical conditions that put them at greater risk, she said, and her eldest son thrives in virtual learning.

But in New Jersey, learning remotely will no longer be an option.

“All we want is the choice,” said Nye, a New Jersey mother of three who has joined with other parents to protest the state action.

The clash comes as elected leaders and educators across the country have been promising a more typical school year in the fall — five full days a week, with teachers and students together in brick-and-mortar schools.

But what happens to virtual learning is in flux.

Some state and local leaders have called it quits, essentially putting an end to family choices. Elsewhere, virtual learning is expanding, with many school districts creating new virtual “academies” that draw on the lessons of the pandemic.

The crosscurrents have created a new education fault line: School by computer is on the way out in some places and on the rise in others — driven by sharply differing views on the long-term value of virtual instruction and the best way to help the most vulnerable children and families in a moment when the stakes are high.

Adding to that are differences in state leadership and local priorities, and political and economic pressures. In some places, elected officials have weighed in strongly.

“It’s time to do things the way they were meant to be done — all the kids in the classroom together, getting a great education from educators who care, staff members who care, the school community coming back fully,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said as he announced in late May that the nation’s largest school system would no longer provide virtual schooling, except for snow days and unforeseen events.

A week earlier, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) drew a similarly hard line, saying that remote learning would be used for coronavirus outbreaks or emergencies. Pre-pandemic rules permitting home instruction, on a case-by-case basis, remain the same, state officials said.

“We are facing a much different world than one year ago,” Murphy said in May.

In recent weeks, Illinois has restricted virtual learning for fall, and Massachusetts has said it cannot be a standard learning model. But for some school districts, state funding is at issue, with possible cutbacks if they allow virtual learning.

There are stark differences about where education should be heading.

The leader of the national school superintendents association, Daniel Domenech, called the refusals shortsighted, saying virtual education is here to stay — even if some leaders will not “move forward into the 21st century.”

“This notion that learning can only take place when a kid is in school” is wrong, he said.

Some states have left the decision to local school systems — as in Connecticut — or imposed limits in new ways. In Lincoln, Neb., virtual instruction has been offered to younger students in the fall — but not those in high school.

“It is now the case where every high school student is eligible to be vaccinated,” said Matt Larson, associate superintendent for instruction in the 47,000-student Lincoln system, where 400 students in kindergarten to eighth grade have opted to go virtual in the fall.

Virtual options won’t last forever, he said. “We view this as a bridge to get to the end of the pandemic,” he said.

Others see broader purposes.

“We have some students who really excelled with virtual learning — students who were bullied or found the virtual option allowed them to find their voice so they could speak up more,” said Superintendent Curtis Jones Jr. of Georgia’s 25,000-student Bibb County School District.

Jones is hoping that 500 to 600 students will learn all virtually in the fall, a plan that may have to be rethought if the state withholds funding for students getting online instruction.

School systems in Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas, along with a long line of smaller cities, suburbs and rural areas, are creating new K-12 programs or extending the ones they have.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said providing virtual offerings to families is a no-brainer. “Good communities provide educational opportunities for all, not just some,” he said.

In Las Vegas, about 8 percent of 310,000 students in the Clark County School District want to do distance education in the fall, said Superintendent Jesus Jara. The district had a virtual program before the pandemic and is hiring teachers and significantly expanding.

“The choice is critical for our families,” Jara said. Still, he added, principals are working with families to ensure students are suited for more virtual instruction. “We’ve learned a lot and now we are giving parents almost like a guide ... so parents make an informed choice, to make sure the kids are successful,” he said.

Grant Rivera, superintendent in Marietta, Ga., said he regards it as an almost philosophical question, believing the choice remains important to families.

“Our families have been through a lot, and the last thing we need to do is force them into a place where they don’t feel comfortable, ” he said. “That’s not how you help children learn.”

'The pandemic is not over'

The pandemic outlook may seem brighter than a year ago, but not everyone believes schools are sufficiently safe. Black, Hispanic and Asian students have remained in virtual learning in much greater percentages than White students as the virus has spread.

New York City is reopening its schools for working families. But many students of color are staying home.

Paullette Ha-Healy, a Brooklyn mother of two and a member of the Citywide Council for Special Education, said her two children are afraid to return to the city’s crowded and poorly ventilated school buildings.

Her extended family has lost a stunning 11 people to covid-19, she said. Meanwhile, her son, in a program to help with developmental delays, thrived with remote learning .

After the mayor’s mandate, some parents are looking for options outside of the public school system. Others have fewer resources.

“If the people actually in charge ... engaged the families that have been remote this whole time, we would have been able to highlight issues before they made their announcement,” she said.

The New York mayor’s office did not answer questions about whether officials are concerned that some families may be unwilling to send their children back to school and could turn instead to online charter or other virtual schools.

In New Jersey, parents upset about Murphy’s stance, first expressed in March, started the organization New Jersey Parents for Virtual Choice, which launched a petition calling on the governor to allow virtual learning and respect family choices.

“People are over the pandemic — but the pandemic is not over,” said Deborah Odore, a founding member, who said exposure to the virus is so serious in her family that it could mean “life or death” for her son and her, given their medical issues.

Similarly, New Jersey parent Karen Strauss, another co-founder, said her youngest child is at particular risk, and she wants to keep him virtual until vaccines are approved for his age group.

“It’s not one size fits all,” she said.

Some parents maintain their students do better in virtual learning because of their learning style, or because they struggle with issues such as anxiety or bullying. For teenagers who hold jobs, the flexibility can make school more doable.

“There will certainly be more virtual education going forward,” said Anna Maria Chávez, executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association. “Now that we’ve seen the power of remote learning, we can’t go backwards.”

Thirty-four states had some form of pre-pandemic online public schooling that was established by state legislatures, school districts or charter schools, according to a nonprofit campaign called National School Choice Week.

Still, critics say online instruction — so widespread this year — fell severely short, despite intensive efforts by teachers. Failing course grades spiked in some areas, with one school system reporting a sixfold increase for the most vulnerable students during first quarter.

Maryland school system sees spike in failing grades amid pandemic

Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School who co-founded the Black Lives Matter at School movement, said virtual learning drains away much of “the magic of education” and comes with risks of its own.

“There is a real danger of school districts turning online learning from a necessity into a virtue,” he said, worrying that private companies will further profit from education software and computer programs, “all while cutting costs by using fewer teachers.”

New virtual programs

Not everyone can afford to launch a new virtual learning program, particularly small school systems. One district leader pointed out that if a program required even 10 additional positions, it could cost $1 million.

Having teachers simultaneously instruct students in person and virtually by Zoom — which was common this year — is being widely rejected as ineffective and unsustainable.

In Maryland’s Howard County, between Baltimore and Washington, school system leaders are planning a full-time one-year virtual option — using dedicated staff and keeping up connections to their regularly assigned school, for students in kindergarten to 12th grade.

More than $1.5 million has been allotted for Howard’s “Digital Education Center,” the first of its kind in the 58,000-student school system. More than 1,500 students have expressed interest, a spokesman said.

Similarly new on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: Nine counties are joining to support a “blended virtual program” that allows students to learn from home because of health issues, bullying problems, schedule conflicts, job commitments or other reasons.

It begins this fall for grades 6 to 12, staffed by Maryland certified teachers, using state curriculum but administered by a vendor. Live instruction will be given at least 20 percent of the day. Learning coaches will confer with students, parents and the students’ regularly assigned schools to help make the experience successful.

“As far as I know, this is the first time in the history of the state of Maryland that any type of program like this has been done across school systems,” said Jon Andes, executive director of the Eastern Shore of Maryland Educational Consortium, which is leading the effort.

How the pandemic is reshaping education

In the Washington suburbs, Maryland’s largest school system, in Montgomery County, has been talking up a new “virtual academy” for fall and allocated nearly $3.5 million to the project. But the program stirred controversy at first for appearing to restrict the eligibility of certain students.

Cynthia Simonson, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, recalled significant dismay among families in the 161,000-student district, along with one parent’s pointed critique: “Having options is a good thing.”

Brian Woods, superintendent of the 104,000-student Northside Independent School District in Texas, said the virtual option has been requested by the families of about 500 students, largely in the elementary grades. He said the school system is exploring whether it can use federal recovery funds for virtual learning, as the state will not fund it next year.

The vast majority of Northside students will return to schools and desks and classrooms, he said.

Still, Woods said, the pandemic has set a new course for learning. “I think it will live in perpetuity, at least for some students and families,” he said. “I don’t think the genie is going back in the bottle completely.”