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Education pluralism: The state of virtual schools

December 13, 2022

For the Mohlman sisters, choosing virtual school during the pandemic was originally about safety. But with time it became their preferred method of learning, and they ultimately decided to stick with it.

Not everyone enjoyed remote learning during the pandemic, and many had negative experiences with it. On the other hand, for those like the Mohlmans, exposure to virtual school had positive long-term effects on their choices for education. Their story is just one example of how the pandemic dramatically changed education, and specifically, how virtual schools were placed on the radar for many families.

What are virtual schools?

Virtual schools allow students to access curriculum and content via the internet rather than in a physical classroom. Both public and private virtual schools exist. While online learning can be a component of a school’s delivery or part of a home-schooling approach, virtual schools as individual entities are designed to deliver instruction online. Likewise, virtual schools are incredibly varied. Some are in real time and others are whats called asynchronous (where instruction is delivered and received at different times).

It’s worth noting that over time, these types of schools have used many labels, like cyber schools, online schools or even e-schools.

Families that are looking for flexibility of time and location while having structure or curriculum organized may be the most interested in virtual schools. It is also a good option for those with safety concerns, physical limitations or prolonged sickness. The option does require internet and device access.

A quick history

Forerunners to virtual schools and schooling were distance education programs, as well as schools in the late 1980s and early 90s that were complemented by technologies.

The CyberSchool Project in Eugene, Oregon, in 1995 was the first iteration of what we think of as a virtual school for K-12 students. Others came along shortly thereafter in Florida, Washington and elsewhere. Today virtual schools are common at the elementary, secondary, post-secondary and even collegiate level.

A look at the nation

Prior to remote learning due to the pandemic, the number of virtual schools was already somewhat on the rise in the country.

U.S. Department of Education data show that as of the 2019-20 school year, there were 691 virtual schools (0.7% of all schools) with 293,717 students enrolled (0.6% of the total student enrollment). As a comparison, in 2013-14, there were 487 virtual schools nationally (0.5% of all schools) with 199,815 enrolled students (0.4% of total student enrollment).

The full impact of the pandemic on virtual schools will be seen over time; however, there is no denying that the number of families choosing virtual schools grew significantly during the pandemic. Data show that during the pandemic, states that saw the largest increases in families opting for virtual schools were in states that already had established virtual schools. This is likely because they were better equipped for remote learning than schools forced to make the transition with little preparation. Additionally, at least 38 states established permanent virtual schools after the pandemic.

A look at Utah

Utah has many state-funded virtual schools. As of the 2022-23 school year, there are 36 virtual schools within the public system. Six of those are public charter schools and 30 are district schools.

That’s five more district schools than the prior school year (2021-22), which had 31 virtual schools (25 district, 6 charter). And it’s a noticeable increase from even the year before (2020-21), when Utah had 23 virtual schools (17 district, 6 charter).

The possible effects of the pandemic on virtual schools can be seen more clearly when looking at the past decade. Between the 2013-14 school year and the 2020-21 school year, the number of state-funded virtual schools fluctuated between 17 and 19, with a big jump between the 2019-20 to 2020-21 school years. (Still, while the number of schools has increased, not all virtual schools have necessarily seen increases in enrollment every year, as was the case with a dip in enrollment this year at Salt Lake Virtual Elementary School.)

Utah also provides the Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP), which offers online courses through LEAs for public, private or homeschooled Utah students in grades 7-12. Students can take up to six credits per year and can progress through coursework in order to graduate early. SOEP offers AP as well as CTE courses. During the 2022 legislative session, policymakers made the program even more flexible so students can take individual courses at online schools without being enrolled at that school full time.

Virtual schools were not uncommon before pandemic shutdowns forced remote learning on everyone, though the pandemic was an obvious catalyst for their demand and growth. Policymakers should support virtual schools so families can continue to access them in the future.

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