Before schools nationwide moved millions of students from classroom seats to screens, educators at Highline Public Schools in South King County wanted to expand online learning. Back then, Highline saw an opportunity: Online education might be good for students who want more flexibility and independence than a traditional classroom setting. 

Now, more than a year after districts nationwide Frankensteined their way through remote instruction, Highline sees even more reason to make good on its initial plan.

The district’s first full-time virtual school, Highline Virtual Academy, is scheduled to open this fall as an all-remote option for middle and high schoolers who want to spend traditional school hours working or helping support family at home, or who might need more frequent midday breaks from classes. District leaders promise the school has been better researched and planned than the pandemic-era model they threw together. 

“This is not a temporary, short-term plan to what’s been happening in the last year-plus,” said Rebekah Kim, one of Highline’s executive directors of teaching, learning and leadership. “Rather, it’s a long-term vision. And what we do know is some students have actually found that they are thriving.”

Yet researchers say some kids who learn online at the K-12 level don’t learn as much as they do in-person. In Washington, remote learning during the pandemic was deemed so unsuccessful that Gov. Jay Inslee and state education officials are urging families to return — and many school districts are planning for entirely in-person learning next school year. New York City officials have said they will not offer remote school at all this fall.

But Highline’s plan fits with a larger trend in Washington and across the country: School officials in urban and rural districts alike are moving to make online learning permanent. 

Advertising

Washington education officials have approved 59 new online learning programs this school year, up from 33 in 2019-20 and 21 in 2018-19. One of Washington’s largest school districts, Lake Washington, is creating a new online school that will open for high schoolers this fall. Edmonds is promising an online-only option. And Richland School District, in Central Washington, is expanding its just-launched online school to allow students outside the district boundaries to enroll. 

Families are insisting on online options, a demand that’s expected to linger even after a rocky school year spent mostly online. 

By the end of April, after schools statewide were required to open their doors to students, only 68% of the state’s 1.1 million public school students had returned to classrooms on a part- or full-time basis, state data shows. In Puget Sound-area classrooms in May, teachers reported showing up to teach to a class of two or three students while a majority of their classmates continued learning from home. 

Many families of color say they aren’t ready to send their children back to a system that’s harmed them. Some students say they finally hit their stride with online learning. And others’ lives have changed so drastically from before the pandemic — they work to support their family, they care for younger siblings — that they feel they can’t go back to the classroom.

These are the students who are driving new demand for permanent remote alternatives. 

New district-run programs promise to cater to any student who wants to enroll. But before the pandemic, research shows, online learning typically attracted a population of students who are more white, more affluent and far less likely to be enrolled in special education services than children in the general population. The online offerings were also dominated by for-profit education providers. In Washington, 6,000 more students attended for-profit programs than past years. 

Advertising

Education researchers say that, for the most part, states didn’t find ways to overcome online learning’s pitfalls during the pandemic. They also didn’t increase oversight for existing online programs.

Michael Barbour, a researcher at the National Education Policy Center who has studied virtual education, said most legislative moves to boost accountability for virtual schools failed in legislatures this year. Instead, legislation that “tend(s) to open up the market more for corporate vendors” saw more success.

Some education and policy experts worry that creating dual tracks of online and in-person options could exacerbate academic divides between students of color and white peers. Surveys in several Puget Sound-area districts show a higher proportion of white families wanted to return to school buildings compared with families of color.

“Even in hybrid learning there is a significant portion of students who are still 100% remote. And those students tend to be students of color, and often students in poverty, students who are experiencing homelessness,” said Bree Dusseault, practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, an education research center at the University of Washington, Bothell. Districts should allocate resources to support a quality “remote learning experience or else they’re going to find that gaps in learning could widen, especially along lines of race and ability.”

To do online education right, experts say, states will need to wrestle with big questions. Do teacher training programs need to adapt and give teachers virtual learning tools? How do education leaders calculate the costs of a quality online education program compared to traditional schooling? Will these programs be equitable?

And the big one: What does an effective online program look like?

Advertising

Pandemic lessons

As more schools move to develop permanent online options, many wonder if we have learned anything new about what “works” with online education — and what really doesn’t.

Education researchers point to a few take-aways: Access to a laptop and the internet are important but not sufficient. Students need to be engaged with interactive, collaborative lessons to stay on track, and feel connected to their school community. Educators should adapt to student feedback and their academic progress. And teachers should regularly check in with their students — and their parents and guardians. 

Long lectures over Zoom are boring: Kids zone out or don’t show up. And replicating a traditional lesson plan in an online setting doesn’t always work.

“Teachers need that support to figure out, how do we do those interactive things in this new environment?” said Alix Gallagher, director of strategic partnerships for Policy Analysis for California Education. “And if they didn’t do those interactive things before, they need to learn how.”

But unfortunately, many experts say, these lessons are only anecdotal, gleaned from a handful of school district case studies or from interviews with teachers.

“It seems likely we will have more data about students’ and teachers’ use of online tools than ever before,” said Matthew Soldner, commissioner at the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. But it’s hard to know how much of that data will be useful, he said.

Sponsored

Until recently, it had been more than a decade since researchers took a hard look at online education. The last time they did, what they found was disappointing: Very few studies looked at K-12 settings. A January review of the research had similar conclusions. 

“The most conclusive thing we can say is we need to do more rigorous research on which kinds of distance learning programs work,” said the lead researcher, Sarah Sahni, principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research in Massachusetts. 

Sahni’s study, which was commissioned by the Department of Education, found that only 15 studies out of 932 on online education met the department’s rigorous criteria for inclusion in the review. A broader look at hybrid programs, or data from this school year, would round out the picture, Sahni said.

That might prove difficult. Data collection was “limited to nonexistent” during the pandemic, said Luis Huerta, associate professor of education and public policy at Columbia University in New York. 

Constantly evolving plans for remote learning and a lack of resources kept schools and researchers from collecting data on how well new or adapted teaching practices are working.

Many states, including Washington, suspended standardized testing during the pandemic, leaving a hole in educators’ and policy leaders’ understanding of where students sit academically. If educators don’t have data on how students fared, how will they know which districts found substantive solutions?

Advertising

“[Suspending testing] at least provided some relief to districts,” which didn’t have to worry about state accountability report cards, Huerta said. “But from a researcher’s perspective, that also led to us losing an opportunity to collect data from which we could learn.”

Online alternative

A handful of school districts, such as Lake Washington and Highline, are convinced that online education should outlive the pandemic. But their models are new and largely experimental, so it’s hard to say how well they’ll match up with best practices.

Lake Washington’s online school, where enrollment is capped at 200 students, will use a virtual platform called Apex Learning, a for-profit digital-curriculum provider based in Seattle. 

At Highline Virtual Academy students won’t receive live, face-to-face instruction. Instead, they’ll follow lesson plans through a program run by for-profit online K-12 learning provider Edgenuity. Teachers will check in with students during small-group times and “advisory” class, which is focused on social-emotional support, said Amy Carlson, the principal. 

“Because these courses are available almost on-demand, they can access them any time of the day, any day of the week,” she said.

Christian Taylor, a seventh grader at Chinook Middle School, said switching to Highline Virtual Academy was an easy decision. “I’m a very independent learner and I wanted to go at my own pace,” he said. And after a year of virtual school, he realized he could “learn better this way” — with undisturbed time to focus on his lessons without the distractions of other students. 

Advertising

Christian’s mom, Denise Fortino, said the new school would be a perfect option, given that when Christian goes to school, he “just wants to get his work done.”

“He actually flourished when we did Zoom classes,” Fortino said. “In our family lifestyle, this school happened to work just great.”

And because the virtual academy will allow students to join athletics or other extracurriculars at their neighborhood Highline school, Fortino said she doesn’t think her son will miss out on much.

Barbour, with the National Education Policy Center, has criticized full-time virtual and blended learning environments for their poor performance scores and lack of accountability, but he acknowledged they can sometimes give students more flexibility to pursue interests or take care of family responsibilities. 

For example, a high school student being raised by a single parent, with younger siblings, might have to spend time during the day taking care of their siblings while their parent works, Barbour said. 

“Any student can have success in any kind of learning environment. It all depends on how that learning environment is designed, delivered and supported.”

Highline leaders hope their virtual academy will do the same in supporting students’ needs, Carlson said. 

The academy is hoping to welcome a maximum of about 400 students — a small percentage for a district that enrolls about 10,000 secondary students — this fall, a district spokesperson said. 

Now, they wait to see who shows up.