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Virtually Inevitable: Virtual Learning Will Soon Be a Norm for Learning

August 2, 2022

There is no doubt that schools and parents across the nation have had to be flexible and inventive in meeting the academic needs of their students. From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 when academic institutions began to pivot to remote instruction, we have all been introduced to new (and sometimes unclear) vocabulary terms related to new educational pathways. Asynchronous. Synchronous. Remote instruction. Hybrid learning. What are the long-term implications on any of these “pathways” as they pertain to student academic and social-emotional growth? Why are there so many staunch supporters of traditional, in-person education? Virtual education appears to be a solid path forward for students to meet their individual academic goals and we should stop fighting the tide and embrace this new format as a norm.

Online may be in-line with equity

It should be noted that no one is advocating that the virtual educational pathway is the superb option for all students. Indeed, if the pandemic has taught the educational industry anything it is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to learning. In fact, the Pew Center for Research shared findings from a recent survey that showed there was a stronger preference for in-person learning among teenagers as opposed to remote instruction. However, this preference may not be unanimous in this age group as the research also concluded that there were “notable differences” between segmented groups based on factors such as race or class. “Black teens are less likely to say they want to only go to school in person since the pandemic,” the study found. “While Hispanic teens are more likely to want a hybrid setup. Teens living in lower-income households are less likely to want to go back to school entirely in person, with 15 percent saying they would prefer to attend school completely online.”

What factors could be contributing to this preferential divide? Could this be attributed to the underrepresentation of teachers of color in the educational field, perhaps leading to a disconnect of Black and Latinx students with those at the front of the classroom? Maybe it’s connected to the contentious feeling that students of color may be facing due to their interactions with a majority white workforce in public schools. Some students may lean in favor of a virtual learning environment because they feel that they are able to build more fortified connections with their educators in virtual environments. Online classrooms may offer a space where students are free from the social difficulties and feelings of rejection that they may complexly navigate in school buildings. A virtual educational experience may provide a clear path forward in providing racial and educational equity to all students, one that school buildings have sought to infuse in their traditional curriculum. 

A class act—Cities leading the way in offering virtual learning

A standard virtual learning option may not just be a trend, but more of a consistent pattern offered by districts throughout the country. New York City has recently launched two virtual high school programs, one focusing on a hybrid approach to career readiness, while the other will offer a “fully remote program using an interdisciplinary, project-based model,” according to the program.

New York City isn’t the only location to offer virtual schooling, nor is it the first. Cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia have launched their own virtual academies, and one Los Angeles school district has plans on launching online schooling for the upcoming school year in the fall. This increase of offering virtual schooling to students and families, and better accommodating to their needs, seems to signify a true pivot in educational culture. It seems it’s only a matter of time until other states, cities and school districts adapt.

Seize the data—The picture painted by enrollment data for virtual schools

With student preference for virtual learning and increasing school district adoption of online education, it appears that remote instruction might be here to stay (and may become the preferred instructional format), especially with the climbing enrollment rates in virtual schools. “Enrollment in virtual schools has increased faster than enrollment in other types of public schools in recent years,” according to insight shared by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “This trend was accelerated by COVID-19, which prompted an increase in distance learning. Virtual charter schools account for about 70 percent of students enrolled in virtual schools.”

In reviewing GAO’s report, while these schools are seeing increasing enrollment rates, schools may also not have the best primer applied to them. Virtual charter schools, for example, have a 25 percent lower math proficiency rate than traditional school buildings. While this data may seem alarming, GAO states that, “there is a lack of systematic information about why virtual schools have lower participation rates and what common challenges across states may be contributing to low rates.” There is much more of a story to be told for virtual schools and online learning. As a society, we must be open to that story and embrace each turning chapter.

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