12 things to know about the return of online learning this school year

The number of districts offering remote instruction more than doubled between July and September, a survey found

COVID’s ongoing spread in classrooms is forcing a growing number of district leaders to reverse their decisions to discontinue online and remote learning options.

Remote learning options doubled in just the first several weeks of the 2021-22 school year, according to a poll of 105 large and urban school systems by the education think tank, the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Some states have blocked or eliminated funding for online learning this school year. But the survey found that the number of districts offering remote instruction more than doubled, from 41 to 94, between July and September.

“But many remote learning programs are struggling to accommodate demand, are not accessible to all students, or don’t provide the support services students would normally receive in school,” says the Center on Reinventing Public Education, also known as the CRPE.

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Some states have also changed their distance learning policies, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education:

  • In late August, Tennessee Commissioner Penny Schwinn has granted waivers allowing eight districts to shift individual schools to remote learning after parents raised concerns about COVID outbreaks
  • The Bridgewater-Raritan board of education successfully lobbied the New Jersey Board of Education to endorse overturning a ban on virtual learning options. The board’s resolution is now being considered by the governor’s office and the Department of Education.
  • Texas’ legislature has approved a bill that provides state funding for district remote learning programs. Large school districts such as Austin and Dallas ISDs had already launched remote learning programs with American Rescue Plan funds.

Demand surges as virtual learning varies

Some virtual learning programs only went online in September while districts that offered or expanded their online alternatives over the summer experienced an unexpected surge in demand.

San Antonio ISD just recently launched a virtual program for 700 students with medical challenges and their siblings, and for students who have suffered trauma during the pandemic, the CRPE says.

In North Carolina, 600 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students had enrolled in virtual learning as of mid-August. Over the next few weeks, enrollment nearly quadrupled to over 2,300 elementary, middle, and high school students. Gwinnett County Public Schools near Atlanta saw a similar spike in enrollment.

At least 29 of the districts surveyed by CRPE set enrollment caps or started waitlists for virtual options. One week into the school year, California’s Sacramento City USD only had enough teachers to accommodate a quarter of its virtual learners, CRPE said.

Many of the districts are using their own teachers to deliver virtual instruction but some have partnered with external providers and only a handful of the school systems surveyed are offering a hybrid option that blends in-person and online learning.

Meanwhile, the approach to distance learning varies among the 105 programs in the CRPE survey. For example:

  • 60 require regular teacher check-ins
  • 53 developed plans to serve students with disabilities and English language learners
  • 45 offer academic interventions such as tutoring or small-group instruction
  • 31 provided enrichment and elective opportunities

Some states support districts’ remote learning plans

Eight states—Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas—have restricted remote learning to some degree in 2021-22. Others, however, are offering guidance to school administrators for developing online programs:

  • Arizona legislation lets schools offer remote learning, mastery-based education, and night and weekend classes as alternatives to the five-day school week.
  • Colorado established standards for online learning programs that cover multiple districts.
  • Connecticut legislation requires the state to set standards for remote learning so districts can offer high school remote learning in 2022.
  • The Illinois State Board of Education has developed remote learning guidelines that cover instructional time, enrollment and requirements for synchronous instruction.
  • South Dakota’s guidance for long-term virtual programs urges quality instruction, alignment to state standards and use of certified staff.
  • The South Carolina State Board of Education has approved 51 district-operated virtual programs requiring that teachers are certified, schools provide live instruction, and students actively participate.

States and districts are contending with challenges such as providing students in quarantine or isolation with immediate access to quality remote learning, the report concluded.

“We can catalyze this moment to establish long-term virtual learning programs that expand on lessons learned during COVID,” the report said. “We are observing a short window this fall in which states and districts can work together to define these paths for their students and families.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is the managing editor of District Administration and a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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