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What Families Should Know About K-12 Online Schools | K-12 Schools

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As schools reopened last fall, many families were relieved to leave virtual learning behind. But for some – particularly those with health concerns or kids who’ve struggled in traditional school – online school may be an attractive alternative for the long term.

Having pivoted to remote learning during the pandemic, some public school districts decided to continue offering an online option going forward. Columbus City Schools in Ohio is one of them.

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“We know there isn’t just one way to teach and one way to learn and become a successful graduate,” says Kyra Schloenbach, Columbus schools’ chief academic officer. The district listened to students and parents about their experiences with online school during COVID-19, and “what we learned is that some students really thrived in that environment.”

Though it may have felt like remote education was invented overnight, online K-12 schools have been around for two decades, mostly in the form of private and charter schools. Pre-pandemic, roughly 375,000 K-12 students were enrolled in full-time online schools in the 2018-19 school year, according to a report from the Digital Learning Collaborative.

Private online schools serve all 50 states and international students, and 35 states now offer free, online public school options. Students primarily learn at home, but some private and charter schools have physical facilities. Columbus, like some other places, is planning to offer field trips and in-person gatherings. There are also “blended” or hybrid schools, which offer a mix of virtual and in-person instruction.

With all of these options, finding a quality program that’s both a good fit for the family and that promotes long-term academic success can be a daunting task.

What to Look for in an Online School

Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room (or on the Zoom, as the case may be): What most families experienced learning remotely during the pandemic is a far cry from what an intentional online school is like. Tillie Elvrum, co-founder of Parent Support for Online Learning, says that students spending many hours a day listening to a teacher over Zoom is not a best practice for online learning.

Elvrum’s son attended online schools through Connections Academy, a virtual charter school network owned by Pearson, and one of the largest K-12 online education providers in the U.S. She describes the experience as interactive and engaging. Instead of sitting on Zoom, “you’re in the kitchen doing an experiment, or you’re reading a book, or you’re writing a paper.” Mickey Revenaugh, a co-founder of Connections Academy, says that typically 70 to 80% of online learning occurs asynchronously, with teachers devoting the remaining time in online classes to clarifying concepts and interacting with their students.

Experts advise looking for accredited programs with certified teachers, and note that quality online programs typically offer the same wrap-around services as traditional schools, including counselors, clubs, sports and extracurriculars. Machelle Kline, chief student services officer at Columbus City Schools, says that daily attendance and regular check-ins by content area to assess understanding are important.

Caregivers should also consider access to technology – many at-home online schools provide laptops and other resources, and some can subsidize internet costs. And as with any school, look for data like test scores, student-to-teacher ratios, state performance ratings and graduation rates, as the quality of online schools can vary considerably.

Pros and Cons of Online School 

How do you know if online school is right for your child? Experts say some of the reasons families have selected online learning include:

  • Ongoing concerns about COVID-19.
  • School safety concerns, including students who have experienced bullying.
  • Students who are working at a different grade level than their peers.
  • Students whose learning needs are not being met at their school.
  • Students who are also parents or caregivers.
  • Medically compromised or vulnerable students.
  • Families looking for flexibility in their learning schedules.
  • Families living abroad.
  • Caregivers seeking an increased role in their child’s education.

These different experiences point to something that proponents say online schools do well: tailoring instruction to individual needs. Elvrum noted the flexibility to spend more time on challenging concepts and to let students work at their own pace and on their own schedules is one of the most appealing aspects of this model for families.
And Revenaugh says online teachers have more time to develop relationships with students because they don’t need to devote as much time to things like classroom management and grading (which is done mainly by computer in Connections Academy).

At the same time, online school is not right for every family. For one thing, schools that don’t have their own facilities often require families to provide a “learning coach” – a caregiver who supports the student through the program. Younger students especially need supervision during the day and generally require more time from the learning coach; Connections Academy suggests coaches plan to spend five hours per week helping students in grades K-5. Kline also notes that to be successful in this role, coaches need to draw the line between providing support and doing the work for their child.

Another issue is quality: a 2019 report from the National Education Policy Center notes that there are “serious questions about the effectiveness of many models of virtual schooling.” Many students are still catching up after schools went remote during the pandemic. And while those emergency conditions did not represent best practices in online instruction, multiple studies prior to the pandemic showed online K-12 schools underperforming compared to traditional schools.

For example, the NEPC report found that online schools had a four-year high school graduation rate of just 50% in 2017-18, compared to the national average of 84%. And less than half of all online schools with state performance ratings received an acceptable rating in the 2017-18 school year.

In some cases, virtual schools, specifically some charters, have been embroiled in years-long lawsuits over alleged fraudulent activity.

How Much Does Online School Cost? 

Families interested in private online school will find annual tuition can vary substantially; a recent search found options starting under $2,000 per year and going up to $14,000. Many providers offer tuition discounts for siblings, military families, and others. And most programs have admissions specialists who can discuss financial options with families.

Public options – including charter schools – are free; contact your local school district or state department of education to see what options are available.



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