The story of schools staying open through a pandemic, of students trying to stay on track with classes, and of teachers keeping tabs on students, has been one of hardship. Despite the benefits of connectivity and technology, the majority of adults and certainly many kids prefer in-person instruction — something finally happening again with improved public health metrics and widespread vaccinations for COVID-19.
But there’s another side to remote learning -- the one experienced by students for whom school-by-computer is a benefit. More than a dozen Massachusetts school districts are pursing ways to cater to those kids by continuing remote schooling in some form in the fall, GBH News reports, even as the rest of their students and teachers return to real-life classes.
State education leaders should accommodate them and take their requests a step further: Virtual academies should be a choice for all students in Massachusetts, not just those lucky enough to live in a district that could soon operate one. The track records of virtual academies elsewhere, though not unblemished, offers proof of concept that computer-based instruction can work, given the right conditions.
Districts now thinking of starting virtual schools — or, to be sure, thinking of keeping virtual classes going post-pandemic — cite as reason those students who’ve thrived in class-by-computer conditions. The 13 districts who’ve applied for permission from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to create virtual centers include some of the largest in the state, according to GBH — Boston, Chelsea and Springfield among them.
At least one North of Boston district hopes to continue online learning, at least for a group of students. Peabody Superintendent Josh Vadala said in March the school system is weighing whether to create an independent, virtual school versus tethering virtual learners to their current school.
In a district press release, Vadala extolled the virtues of Peabody students learning from Peabody teachers using a Peabody curriculum and Peabody resources. Those students may opt for online instruction for many reasons, he said — perhaps related to medical issues, social emotional needs, lingering concerns over COVID-19 or “because they simply prefer it.”
“The district has also seen students thrive in its remote learning program this year,” he says, noting measured growth in math and English Language Arts as evidence.
The results of the state’s only online academy to this point, the Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School, are not as inspiring. The 11-year-old school spent five of those years on state probation, its status uncertain due to questions about the academic achievement of its students, enrollment and the number of kids taking the state’s standardized test, the MCAS. Informed by that experience, state education officials have warned local districts to proceed with caution should they become so inspired as to start their own virtual academy.
In other states, however, virtual models are more entrenched. They include Pennsylvania’s, where 14 cyber-charters experienced a 50% increase in enrollment at the outset of the past school year, the result of families abandoning local schools struggling to figure out the vagaries of remote learning due to the pandemic.
Among the biggest concerns over that state’s online academies — which had some 60,000 students last October — is a funding mechanism that, much like in-person charters in Massachusetts, siphons resources from local districts. The state’s governor has recently proposed capping the tuition charged by cyber-charters, saving money for local districts, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
At least 10 other states are operating more than 10 online academies, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In Florida, where each local district operates a virtual school, there are more than 180. New Hampshire has two.
The approach — of an online education that is intentional and not borne from the necessity of a public health crisis — deserves deeper study in Massachusetts. Districts in this state hoping to create permanent, everlasting remote academies should find encouragement from education leaders, who also should look for ways to make these opportunities available to all students.