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Interest and Enrollment in Virtual Schools Surge Around the Country

By Henry Kronk
April 07, 2020

Over the past weeks, American teachers, parents, and administrators have made heroic efforts to keep classes learning despite school closures for almost every district in the country. As stakeholders have come to terms with remote learning throughout K-12 grade levels, some have begun to look forward to next year. That anticipation has led some in the direction of virtual schools. While virtual charter schools at one time seemed like an altogether different model from traditional in-person instruction, those former boundaries are tumbling down as schools respond to widespread closures.

Connections Academy, a virtual school operator and service provider owned by Pearson, has witnessed this firsthand. With just a few months left in the 2019-20 school year, the Connections Academy network has seen thousands of transfer applications to their institutions—more than double the previous year.

Virtual Schools Were Perfectly Positioned to Aid in the Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic

“Schools, teachers, and parents everywhere deserve a medal for responding to the crisis; scrambling to take school and work online,” said Tom ap Simon, managing director of Pearson’s K-12 online learning division.

Enrollment and interest are spiking despite the fact that it is normally rare for a student to transfer to another school with just a few months left in the year. Interest has also increased for enrollment in the coming school year, and many virtual schools have opened their admissions early.

“It is clear to us that there is more interest in what we do because of the crisis. We are responding in many ways to help,” ap Simon said. “I think this is a result of a few perspectives. One, school districts are realizing that they need an online learning option; they need help standing up online learning. Two, families who want a solution now or feel uncertain about whether school will right itself by fall are contacting us.  But there are also a group of families who enjoy the school at home thing; whose kids seem to be doing better.  They are reaching out for more information.”

Making Online Resources and Training Available

Connections Academy has already begun to administer their own response to the crisis. In collaboration with state governments, the company offered access to their platform, eLearning software, and teacher training to schools and districts at no cost. The company pledged to reach 100,000 learners with these virtual school resources.

For reference, roughly 75,000 learners studied at Connections Academy virtual schools before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Roughly 430,000 American students attended at blended or virtual schools at the K-12 level in the 2017-2018 school year. Considering there are currently about 56.6 million K-12 students in the U.S., virtual schools remain a niche form of institution.

The Distinctions Between Brick-and-Mortar and Online Schools Is Crumbling

But ap Simon believes, along with many others, that this reality is about to change.

“We are also thinking about how this event is going to change how we all think about school and virtual learning,” ap Simon said. “There is going to be a demand on the education system to change — we now need to prepare for ‘the online option.’  We’ve been supporting quality full-time online school for nearly 20 years; we look forward to being part of national solutions.”

But at the same time, many have drawn a distinction between quality online education and maintaining instructional continuity.

“At a high level, one of the things that sets the Connections Academy online school program apart from what is happening now, is that our focus is less on technology — the focus is on a holistic school experience and the relationships formed with teachers and students as well as families; technology is the enabler,” ap Simon said. “Key at Connections Academy:  communication, student engagement and outcomes, personalization and using data to help us address individual needs of students. Our technology helps us do that and we’ve spent many years figuring out what works; continually striving for improvements. For example, most people can host a Zoom web conference call, it is what you do in that call and around that call, in terms of student outreach and engagement, how you engage and train teachers to teach well online etc.

“As mentioned, I think everyone who has stepped up to help keep kids learning amid this crisis should be commended. But, what traditional schools are doing now to bring learning online is very different from our full-time online school program. Educators are responding to a crisis, it is understandable that emergency solutions will face some challenges.  We are out there trying to help in the best way we know how — with our expertise and support: our online teaching hotline, webinars, best practices, free solutions for schools. It is definitely a time to come together across the board with support and encouragement.”