The Riccitti family had a small window of time to make the switch. So they did.

When Washington schools closed in mid-March, Colleen Riccitti decided to withdraw her three children from the Kent School District. Her children’s teachers had no immediate plan to continue instruction, Riccitti said, calling the moment “chaotic at best.”

She soon found an alternative in Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA), one of the state’s largest public virtual schools — and one that was accepting new students, even in the middle of the school year. And like other public schools, enrollment was free.

“It was a no-brainer to try to enroll them right away so they didn’t really miss anything,” Riccitti said.

Hundreds of families are turning to these schools, some in fear their children will slip backward as school building closures drag into summer.

Virtual schools were poised to step in. And they have. Like traditional schools, virtual programs are paid for by taxpayers. This includes schools managed by for-profit companies: WAVA is one of two virtual schools here operated by Virginia-based K12 Inc. The publicly traded company is a titan in the for-profit online education world. It runs about 70 online schools in 30 states, and has about 120,000 full-time students in its public programs.

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Virtual schools are now growing their brand by giving districts free teacher trainings and materials. And they’re enrolling more students. K12 Inc.’s CEO Nathaniel Davis told investors last week that more than 100,000 families nationwide — about 57% more than this time last year — submitted inquiry forms over the past two months. About 6,000 more students applied recently than at this time last year, said company spokesperson Jeff Kwitowski.

“Let’s talk about the upside to the pandemic,” Davis said on the call. “It’s horribly unfortunate for so many people all around the world. But we’re in the business that helps schools and students in situations exactly like this.” When the pandemic started, he said, K12 Inc.’s phones were “ringing off the hook.”

But experts question the value of virtual schools. Class sizes are large. The virtual model, which requires an adult to coach children through lessons, won’t work for many families. Among virtual school students last year in Washington, those learning English, those from low-income homes and those in special education declined from the previous year in the state’s metric of success for online education: course completion.

Do you have more questions about virtual schools?

Join Education Lab reporter Hannah Furfaro and engagement editor Anne Hillman on Thursday, May 21, at 1 pm for a conversation about the pros and cons of virtual schools. Register here. We'll answer your questions during the event.

And some of these schools lack transparency. Districts treat for-profits that run the schools like contractors. The companies aren’t subject to open-records law and don’t disclose many financial details.

Another concern: inconsistent data. A 2018 state audit found the state’s education department isn’t collecting reliable information on online students’ outcomes. But available data hints those at some schools, such as WAVA, perform far below state averages and many are below grade level.

Virtual schools have gained a small foothold here. And now they’re growing. At least 250 students recently signed up for WAVA, the school’s leader says. Another 530 started at K12 Inc.’s other virtual school here, Insight School of Washington, an 8% increase over last year at this time.

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“All of these companies, in all honesty, are playing a bit of a long game,” said Michael Barbour, associate professor of instructional design at Touro University California. “The more people they can get using their tools now, the greater percentage of them that will continue to use those tools post-pandemic.”

State education officials say they don’t know exactly how many children have transferred to virtual schools. But any growth brings the state a financial problem during a moment of economic vulnerability: the possibility of paying twice for students who transfer. Washington funds schools based on how many students they teach, and has promised to pay public districts based on February enrollment numbers — regardless of whether some have since transferred.

Is a virtual school right for you?

Are you curious about an online school for your child? Here are some points to consider:

■ Public virtual schools are free, but some schools charge fees for honors or other classes.

■ They may lack the full suite of courses at most schools.

■ Expect to spend time helping your child with lessons.

■ Most virtual schools aren’t accepting additional new students this school year.

■ You’ll need a computer for each child.

■ Curriculum and grading is similar to traditional schools.

■ Class sizes may be larger, but teachers are expected to help individual students.

■ Some virtual programs offer special education and accelerated programs.

Virtual schools want to get paid, too. In Washington, such schools get roughly $8,500 for every full-time student they enroll, about $3,000 less than what traditional K-12 schools receive per student. “We don’t yet know if the Legislature will provide additional funds that could help the online providers,” said Katy Payne, spokesperson for the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

If they do get reimbursed, virtual schools such as WAVA may reap long-term financial gains. A “larger, longer-term opportunity exists,” Davis told investors. “We believe some of these students will choose to stay with the program even if traditional schools open in the fall.”

“There’s no question [virtual schools] see this as a golden opportunity,” said Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, an Oakland, California-based research and policy center and arm of Partnership for Working Families, which receives support from the AFL-CIO. “It is wrong to take advantage of a crisis to expand your business, and particularly wrong if that business in some way harms our public education system.”

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New to school

The Riccitti children were still technically enrolled in two schools each until late April — their neighborhood schools in Kent and WAVA.

Within two weeks of enrolling, more than a half-dozen boxes, some so big they could contain a microwave, arrived at the family’s home. Inside: thick textbooks, workbooks, watercolors and clay, microscopes — even bean seeds for science experiments.

The switch to WAVA wasn’t seamless. Kayla Riccitti, who is in seventh grade, was in honors in the Kent School District. But unless her family pays for supplemental classes, which start around $260, Kayla can’t take them. Instead, she moved up to eighth grade English language arts and math. And she and her siblings already know some of the material their new classmates are studying now.

“I had one-on-ones with a lot of my teachers to figure out what I needed to do,” Kayla said.

Washington’s first online school opened in Federal Way in 1996. Online education has steadily grown since then: Last school year, about 37,500 Washington students (about 3.4% of public school students), enrolled in an at least one online course. About 340 Washington schools offer at least one online class.

Fewer than a dozen large, full-time online schools operate in Washington. Class sizes can range from 20 to about 75, say teachers and school administrators.

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Virtual schools tend to serve students who prefer learning at their own pace. Many struggled academically at previous schools, virtual school leaders say, which could help explain why they perform below state averages. But an oft-cited 2015 Stanford study shows these students improve more slowly than peers with the same academic scores, discrediting this explanation.

Students interviewed for this article say they are online with a teacher for a half-hour to a few hours each day. They otherwise work independently. Teachers may be hundreds of miles from their students.

“Golden opportunity”

For decades, education experts have maintained that for-profit operators are motivated by bottom lines, not the good that comes from robust, equitable public education. Despite those concerns, few state governments have improved oversight, Barbour said.

In Washington, money for virtual schools such as WAVA flows to public school districts. But these schools are largely run by for-profits. Companies can secure contracts with districts to provide instruction and online learning platforms so long as they are approved by the state and agree to a list of assurances, such as working with certificated teachers.

State officials don’t keep an official record of what districts pay for-profit companies each year, making it hard to know how many taxpayer dollars go to such virtual schools.

K12 Inc.’s spokesperson disputes the company’s public schools are for-profit, and says schools such as WAVA are public-school programs that contract with the company for services. K12 Inc.’s financial records offer little clarity on how much the company profits from such programs, but it reported $62.2 million in earnings last year; officials acknowledged that the company is profitable, but did not provide specifics.

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K12 serves 120,000 public school students nationwide; its CEO Davis made $9.7 million in salary and benefits in 2019. By comparison, Seattle Public Schools serves about 52,000 students in a single city; its superintendent Denise Juneau earned about $300,000 plus benefits this school year.

It’s difficult to know the cost of running a single school affiliated with a for-profit company. WAVA, for example, is technically part of the Omak School District, which serves about 6,100 students, 4,500 of whom attend WAVA and live across the state. Omak and WAVA did not provide The Seattle Times with WAVA’s budget. But according to a Seattle Times analysis and district documentation, Omak budgeted roughly $31 million for WAVA or other alternative learning options this school year, “a majority” of which pays for WAVA, the district’s fiscal administrator Scott Haeberle said (a portion of this covers teachers, who are Omak employees). The head of Insight, K12 Inc.’s other school here, did not provide its contract or budget.

But this reveals little about what it costs to educate a student — or how much companies profit. In addition to state dollars, virtual schools are eligible for federal funding for children in special education and other programs.

K12 Inc.’s WAVA contract doesn’t list its prices and suggests the company has an incentive to keep costs down.

In response to concern that K12 Inc. may profit from school closures, Kwitowski, the company spokesperson, said the recent surge in interest was “completely organic.” “That has nothing to do with anything done by us or partner schools. That was parents looking for options by themselves,” he said; the company is advertising, he said, but not in response to coronavirus closures.

“No one was out waving, saying ‘Come to WAVA, come to WAVA,’” said the head of the school, Summer Shelton, who recently switched her daughter to that school. “But we had families like my own who saw the writing on the wall.”

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Virtual world

Will Sol’s six children have been enrolled at WAVA since 2015. All were in foster care. Some experienced trauma or neglect. A few qualified for special-education services.

Traditional classrooms didn’t work for them.

Sol’s experience with virtual schooling differs from the bad reviews he’s heard and the statistics he’s seen. “It absolutely works,” he said. That may be because he and his wife found a way to navigate it. Sol stays home and guides instruction.

“You have to have an adult who is committed,” Sol said. “It automatically becomes the hurdle for situations where that can’t happen.”

This aspect of virtual schooling is often criticized, since it excludes most single-parent families, or those where two parents work full-time. But many parents are now at home. In theory, what virtual schools offer may be more plausible now than ever before.

Traditional public school districts are making do with whatever technology they have. Virtual school staff say they may have lessons to share with traditional schools. The principal of Federal Way Internet Academy, which is run by Federal Way Public Schools, not a commercial outfit, said the school’s teachers have stepped up to help the district’s other teachers. Jaime Beckland, an eighth grade teacher at WAVA, said teachers need to prioritize student safety, and should be vigilant about monitoring students’ online interactions.

But even virtual school leaders say they’ve had to make adjustments. Suddenly more people are at home, including siblings.

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For families new to virtual education, such as the Riccittis, the shift is significant.

The next few months are a “short-term commitment to try it out,” Colleen Riccitti said. “Maybe we’ll learn some things from this,” she said. “I’m trying to find a silver lining. “

If things go well, she added, the family will continue at WAVA next school year.