Virtual Schools to Be Increasingly Common After COVID-19
School districts across the country expect the demand for online learning options to remain above pre-pandemic levels. Some are launching new virtual schools or preparing to accommodate future enrollment. BY BRANDON PAYKAMIAN / MARCH 24, 2021
While virtual learning and teaching have come with a plethora of challenges, some K-12 educators are more confident than ever about their remote capabilities after more than a year of virtual schooling during COVID-19 school closures. According to a February survey by the RAND Corporation American School District Panel, about 20 percent of schools now plan to establish and expand online courses for the handful of families who’ve welcomed the change of pace and flexibility of virtual learning.
Education officials from coast to coast say they’re bracing for an unprecedented increase in demand for online learning options in the years to come. And plans are underway to help meet that demand via the establishment of new virtual academies and the expansion of existing programs.
Jordan Virtual Academy Established in Utah
In Utah’s Jordan School District, officials are gearing up to offer the system’s newly established Jordan Virtual Learning Academy for students next fall. The new school, announced in December, is projected to serve at least 1,200 of the district’s current 3,000 virtual students through virtual core curriculum courses found elsewhere in the district, including math, reading and the sciences.
Principal Spencer Campbell said most of the new academy’s elementary students will attend virtual classes together in the morning, while others can choose to complete coursework asynchronously, meaning they can view lectures and finish coursework according to their schedules. Students can also choose to take a handful of hands-on art courses at in-person district campuses.
“There’s a little more flexibility as you move up through the [grade] levels,” he noted.
Campbell, a former virtual learning trainer, said educators feel more prepared to teach virtual classes after nearly a year of facilitating remote learning. He noted that 40 to 50 teachers from within the district have already applied to work with the new academy, made up of Kings Peak High School, Kelsey Peak Virtual Middle School, and Rocky Peak Virtual Elementary School.
“We had a lot of interest. Some of our positions had five, six, seven applicants that were within the district,” he said. “We also hired special ed teachers as well to work with our special needs students.”
Since most of the school’s staff come from within Jordan, officials expect the academy to be a cost-effective solution funded mainly through the district. However, administrators had not determined the exact cost of the school as of Wednesday. Campbell explained that while Utah’s schools are funded according to enrollment, some students may elect to take a couple classes virtually and others in-person. Because of this, he said, administrators are still exploring funding mechanisms.
“If we’re talking any student taking an online course, it will probably be about 2,000, 2,200. A lot of those will come from the high school level just taking one or two classes,” he said. “Full-time students, I would imagine, will be about 800 or 1,000.”
Butterfield Canyon Elementary School fifth-grade instructor Kasey Chambers said educators and administrators in the district had been discussing a new virtual academy since before the pandemic put the need at the forefront and put teachers’ virtual capabilities to the test. Though many were initially reluctant about going virtual, Chambers said she’s now looking forward to being part of something new in Jordan next semester.
“The challenge is that nobody has done this before for the majority of the time. We were all kind of thrust into it and doing the best we can with our expertise. As the year has progressed, we’ve gotten pretty good at it,” she said. “When the school opens, we’re really going to up our game.”
CAVA Hires More Teachers to Meet Demand
California Virtual Academies (CAVA) recently hired over 100 teachers to help facilitate enrollment growth, which has reached its brim with more than 15,000 students during the 2020-21 school year. Over the course of the pandemic, the K-12 charter academy system has witnessed growth not seen since its founding nearly 20 years ago.
April Warren, CAVA’s head of schools, said the school expects to retain many of these new students who enrolled for the first time during the 2020-21 school year, though projections for the fall still remain largely speculative. While many of those new students are new to full-time virtual learning, Warren thinks CAVA is up to the task of meeting the growing demand for online classes.
“We are hopeful many of those students will stay with us for the upcoming school year,” she said. “It is [still] too early to tell at this time what the enrollment for the upcoming school year will look like.”
Through the help of state funding, Warren said CAVA students can access comprehensive courses found in most brick-and-mortar schools, including world language courses. The school also offers Advanced Placement, career technical education and dual enrollment options that allow high school students to take college courses for both college and high school credits. The school also tailors instruction for some special needs students.
Similar to other online schools offering asynchronous learning options, Warren said CAVA gives students and teachers more flexibility throughout the school year compared to other traditional in-person public schools.
“While some traditional school experiences are not available in our setting — for example, competitive sports — students have more flexibility and support to develop other interests, such as afterschool jobs, community service or travel experiences,” she said. “For educators, they’re a part of a school designed to meet the individual needs of students … The model allows them to work with students individually or in small groups in ways the traditional school model struggles to provide.”
NC Virtual Expects Continued Growth
NC Virtual, a tuition-free supplemental online school in North Carolina, offers about 130 different courses and employs nearly 750 part-time and full-time instructors who now teach tens of thousands of students.
Executive Director Eliz Colbert said online learning at NC Virtual has been gaining popularity over the years since the school was established in 2007, but the pandemic boosted enrollment in the spring of 2020 and the 2020-21 school year.
“For the last several years, NC Virtual has averaged enrollment numbers of around 50,000 students in full-course credit classes. This year, we are on pace to exceed 60,000. I say ‘full-credit courses’ because some online schools count course enrollments by half credits. That is an important distinction to note,” she said in an email. “If we counted half credits, we would be exceeding 100,000.”
According to Colbert, the school is now planning to expand its course catalog, which currently includes foreign language classes and career courses, as well as K-12 core classes found in other public schools.
“We have 11 different world languages, a group of career technical education courses, and about 16 Advanced Placement courses,” she said, adding that courses sometimes vary by semester. “We are also growing our middle school course offerings.”
The school operates under a state enrollment-based funding formula similar to California, which works through a three-year rolling projection model so schools can budget ahead of each year, with reserve funds for drastic changes in enrollment.
“If a student enrolls for one class with us and the other six at their local [in-person] school, NC Virtual gets the money for the percentage of the one course through the average daily membership (ADM) formula for that particular district,” Colbert explained.
While learning loss has been a major concern for schools not used to full-time remote learning, Colbert noted that the school’s state test scores and AP scores generally match up well when compared with scores from the state’s in-person public school students, though state testing data has been limited during the pandemic.
Colbert said other schools often look to NC Virtual for help facilitating remote learning through programs like its Partnership Courses program. Colbert said programs such as this have “taken off” faster than expected during the pandemic as teachers and administrators throughout North Carolina continue navigating the challenges of virtual learning.
“Many districts in North Carolina want local virtual academies, but building a standards-aligned course catalog is most difficult,” she said.
Brandon Paykamian Staff Writer
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and more than four years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.