Imagine a classroom where learning transcends physical boundaries, and where every student’s need is met with individualized attention. This isn’t a distant dream, but an emergent reality born in the wake of the global pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, approximately 375,000 students attended online schools—less than 1% of the total number of US K–12 students. But as the crisis unfolded in 2020, virtual schools became a preferred educational choice for a significant number of families. Our survey in August 2021 found that 43% of districts had introduced a full-time virtual school option during the pandemic. These were new schools that students and families could opt into, separate from the emergency remote instruction commonly provided during the pandemic though existing brick-and-mortar schools.
Yet today, as pandemic emergency declarations officially draw to a close, a recent Hechinger Report article reveals that a lot of these newly minted virtual schools face tenuous futures. Many of the students who enrolled in them during the pandemic have returned to brick-and-mortar settings, leaving the durability of virtual options hanging in the balance.
Shuttering these newly formed schools would be an incredible loss for K–12 education as a whole.
Virtual schools have, for more than two decades, offered students and families degrees of flexibility and personalization previously unavailable through conventional schools. The creation of new district virtual schools during the pandemic greatly expanded access to these benefits. But when brick-and-mortar schools reopened and COVID-related health concerns subsided, the students and families who had enrolled in district virtual schools faced a hard choice. Although virtual schools were appealing for their personalization, flexibility and security, many students and families still wanted and needed the custodial care, structured learning environments, in-person social interaction, and in-person programs (e.g., sports, band, and theater) that were only available to them at brick-and-mortar schools.
If early-stage district virtual schools can continue to build on and enhance what they offer, they could transform the conventional version of schooling common in most districts. Rather than forcing families into trading one set of benefits for another, virtual schools could offer the best of both worlds. But the potential, promise, and sustainability of district virtual schools hinges on whether they can evolve beyond the current versions we see in most districts.
The improvements and innovations that district virtual schools pursue should be guided first and foremost by the needs and interests of the families they serve. But drawing on the insights we’ve gained from studying both innovative school models and the desires of families over more than a decade, here are a few areas virtual school leaders and district leaders should consider if they want to sustain the benefits of virtual schooling beyond the era of the pandemic.
1. Address unsustainable costs
The key issue with district virtual schools, as per the Hechinger Report, is unsustainable fixed costs due to plummeting enrollments post-pandemic. Schools with insufficient students struggle to maintain the cost of full-time teachers. Fortunately, the flexibility of virtual schooling enables cost-effective staffing solutions, such as extra stipends for conventional classroom teachers to also teach virtual students part-time, or contracting with curriculum-providing companies to fill teaching needs.
However, these immediate financial fixes aren’t perfect. When virtual schools outsource teaching, they run the risk of eroding their community spirit and becoming disconnected from student needs. Therefore, the long-term sustainability of these schools depends not only on managing operating costs but also on generating revenue by attracting local students to create a vibrant community. To increase enrollments, these schools need to evolve in ways that make them more appealing to local families, as indicated in the following suggestions.
2. Provide flexible in-person options
In-person learning may seem like a contradiction to the very concept of virtual learning. But pairing in-person options with virtual learning is likely key to making virtual schools an attractive alternative for more learners and families. Many families appreciated the adaptability of virtual learning during the pandemic, but missed the structured learning environments, socialization opportunities, custodial care, and activities like sports and arts that physical schools provide. As such, they faced a tradeoff when physical schools reopened. But the flexibility of virtual schooling and the programs and supports available in-person don’t have to be an either-or proposition.
Programs like Altus Schools in California; Innovations Early College High School and Launch High School in Utah; Wilder School District in Idaho; Village High School, Springs Studio, and Poudre Global Academy in Colorado; ACE High School in Oklahoma; Link Learning in Michigan; Foothills Education in Georgia; Crossroads FLEX High School in North Carolina; and Map Academy in Massachusetts are all compelling examples of in-person schools that use online learning as the backbone of instruction to make the time, place, path and pace of learning and the roles of educators personalized to students’ learning needs.
3. Enhance support
Virtual schools attract many students who struggle in conventional schools due to bullying, social anxiety, ADHD, autism, or other unaddressed learning needs. For these students, the virtual setting can be a much-needed haven of safety and flexibility. However, in the absence of traditional school structures, these students often struggle to find academic success because many virtual schools are not well equipped to support their academic needs.
To truly serve these students, virtual schools need to implement more robust support systems, such as dedicated advisors for regular check-ins, an expanded team of mental health professionals, and effective data systems to identify and intervene with struggling students. Map Academy in Plymouth, Massachusetts, exemplifies how to construct a comprehensive support system for high-need students that capitalizes on the unique benefits of virtual schooling, rather than merely mirroring conventional school support structures.
While these enhanced support systems may incur added costs, they are fundamental to the success of a virtual schooling model. This underscores the importance of effectively controlling costs, as mentioned earlier, to accommodate these necessary expenses.
4. Blur the lines between conventional and virtual
District virtual schools have a unique advantage of blending the flexibility of virtual schooling with the existing in-person benefits of their district’s conventional schools. Instead of creating independent programs, they can allow their students to participate in existing activities such as sports or band. Conversely, conventional students can benefit from district virtual offerings, taking additional online classes or niche courses with limited demand. Virtual schools like VLACS in New Hampshire, FLVS in Florida, and Michigan Virtual have enabled this kind of part-time virtual learning for decades. In a similar vein, Utah students enrolled at My Tech High can choose to take some of their courses in-person from their local school districts. This ability to blur the line between virtual and brick-and-mortar experiences positions district virtual schools to provide the best of both worlds—an advantage stand-alone virtual schools don’t have.
5. Embrace mastery-based learning
Virtual schooling offers students and families flexibility in terms of the time and location where learning happens. However, most virtual schools do not offer flexibility on the dimensions of path and pace. They use one-size-fits all curricula, follow the conventional semester calendar, and use conventional A-F grading.
By embracing mastery-based learning, district virtual schools could greatly enhance their students’ learning experiences. Mastery-based learning allows students to take ownership of their learning, progress at their own pace, and pursue alternative paths to mastery. It’s also a more effective way to address learning gaps, as it allows students to focus their efforts on their particular areas of need. When done well, mastery-based learning also enhances students’ motivation and engagement by providing clear expectations, detailed feedback on learning progress, and creating transparency about learned and unlearned content.
6. Fuel the improvement trajectory
Improving district virtual programs along these dimensions is only part of the equation for making them sustainable and compelling alternatives to conventional schooling. Perhaps the biggest challenge is mustering the motivation and mindset within a district to make these changes happen. Too often, district leaders view their virtual schools as mere niche programs plugging a gap in their public mandate, warranting only minimal attention and resources once a basic program is in place. Consequently, virtual schools frequently struggle to garner the leadership, funding, staffing, and facilities critical to their improvement.
Turning the tide requires visionary district leaders who recognize the potential of virtual schools not as niche programs, but as dynamic alternatives to the one-size-fits-all approach of conventional schooling. These innovative platforms are ripe for transformation; they can actualize a new educational paradigm that caters to the diverse needs of 21st-century learners.
Now, imagine a future in which districts not only offer, but actively champion their virtual schools. Districts promote them as havens not only of unrivaled flexibility and security, but also as uniquely engaging and personalized learning experiences that can put all students on a path to both academic proficiency and personal fulfillment.
The call to action is clear: It’s time to champion the ongoing evolution of virtual schooling by giving these models the attention, resources, and support they need to improve. For district leaders, this means being champions of virtual schools and getting out of their way as they work to improve and attract more students. For virtual school leaders, this means regularly rising above the work of day-to-day operations to imagine and pursue better ways to address costs and improve the student experience. For families, this means seeing beyond negative stereotypes to discover the appealing potential of these schools. For students, this means telling their stories widely so that other students will see the exciting things these schools have to offer.
Let’s transform district virtual schools from pandemic stop-gaps into pioneering models of 21st-century learning.