Schools Didn’t Plan for Online Classes This Year. Then Delta Struck, Demand Is Surging & Districts Are Scrambling for Virtual Options. Will They Be Good Enough?

Karega Rausch (qualitycharters.org)

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In normal times, the Minnesota Department of Education considers two or three applications a year from school districts and public charter schools seeking to operate online programs. The process often takes a year, says Online and Digital Learning Specialist Jeff Plaman, the lone person assigned to this task on the agency’s org chart.

Yet two weeks before the new school year was set to begin in most Minnesota communities, two dozen colleagues were helping Plaman review nearly 300 applications for permission to provide distance learning. The ad hoc reviewers expect up to 200 more requests — which would encompass nearly all of the state’s school systems.

The nutshell explanation for the scramble is a variation on events playing out in a number of places across the country. Politically deadlocked over the terms of classes resuming in person, state lawmakers ended their 2021 sessions without addressing online school quality. Which didn’t seem to be a problem until COVID-19’s Delta variant began its alarming spread, as most school systems planned to bring all but a few of their students back.

Pre-Delta, for example, St. Paul Public Schools had intended to open a permanent online high school with room for 500 students, but got just 50 takers. Yet, by the second week of August, it was clear families’ sense of risk was changing. So the district, Minnesota’s second-largest, pivoted, offering distance learning for all students — provided they were willing to give up their seat in their current school.

On July 29, just 4 in 10 schools in a database of COVID-19 responses by 100 large and urban U.S. school districts compiled by the Center on Reinventing Public Education planned to offer distance learning. A month later, 92 percent were readying remote classes. A little more than half, or 56 percent, were open to all students.

Since then, demand has surged. For example, on Aug. 19, a Thursday, Dallas Independent School District announced the opening of a virtual school. When admissions closed the following Monday morning, it had received 1,600 applications. School started the next day.

“In some districts, parent fears and desire for more flexible remote options are already exploding into school board meetings, and that, in turn, could lead to pressure on state leaders to authorize remote learning,” CRPE reported. “But remote learning can also come with a cost — especially if it’s hastily assembled in a matter of days or weeks before school starts. The longer schools were closed over the past 18 months, the greater the harm to students’ academic progress and emotional well-being.”

Despite parent survey data last spring showing that families wanted schools to continue to offer virtual classes — but make them better — there are few formal efforts to make sure virtual instruction is good enough coming into the pandemic’s third academic year to address the learning losses of the last year and a half. In some places, education leaders are being asked to comply with a patchwork of pre-existing rules created to address unrelated issues.

Karega Rausch is president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, an organization that for years has grappled with how to oversee virtual schools in a way that prevents the high student turnover, low academic performance and financial irregularities that have sparked distrust of the growing number of online-only, for-profit schools.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, it was a matter of, ‘how can we make sure that kids are getting something’ — I get that,” he says. “We’re at a point now, 18 months on, where that’s no longer enough…. We’re at a point in the recovery where we have to have recovery expectations.”

Years of trying to hold virtual schools accountable for academic and financial performance, he says, have taught many lessons to charter school authorizers, the entities that approve proposals for new schools and are supposed to close those that don’t live up to their promises. Chief among them, with some exceptions: Most online schools will not strive for higher and higher quality on their own. Instead, expectations for what they will accomplish must be spelled out in an enforceable contract before they are allowed to launch. A question as seemingly straightforward as whether students and teachers interacting in real time in groups constitutes effective engagement can be anything but simple, Rausch says.

Politics may have shoved education leaders between a rock and a hard place, he and other researchers tracking schools’ responses to COVID-19 acknowledge. But it’s time for states and districts to stop seeing online classes as a stopgap, they say.

Indeed, there are some promising efforts that school systems could learn from. Florida has long operated a successful statewide virtual school that districts and charter schools can “franchise.” Indianapolis is contracting with two homegrown charter schools to provide high-quality online classes, freeing bricks-and-mortar school leaders to think about safety and academic recovery.

And in Arizona and Texas, the Great Hearts network has seized the moment to open an online school — in part, to serve families who want the kind of classical education its in-person schools offer, but who live in rural areas or communities with few options.

‘A component of the future’

As governors throughout the country declared emergencies at the start of the pandemic, they ordered schools to shift classes online and in many places later outlined the conditions under which they could — or would be required to — welcome students back in person. The quality of online offerings varied widely, with many students getting very little live contact with teachers and losing ground academically and in terms of mental health.

Last winter, Minnesota education advocates asked lawmakers to set specific standards for distance or hybrid learning, as opposed to permanent online schools, and to establish a working group that would evaluate promising practices. None of the bills passed, and COVID-19 seemed to be in retreat.

But when the emergency order directing Minnesota schools to offer a distance option lapsed July 1, it was beginning to look as if the Delta variant could again threaten in-person learning. Education officials urged districts and charter schools that wanted the flexibility to operate online to apply for provisional permission.

Because of the tight timeline, the state Education Department asked district and school leaders to explain how they will fulfill a handful of basic assurances about their online programs’ operations. More detailed plans are due in November and December, but the provisional authorization will give schools the flexibility to respond to COVID-19.

Minnesota online schools must employ their teachers, use curricula that are aligned to state academic standards and specify how they will monitor attendance and how students will receive instruction. As the year progresses, they will also have to submit sample student schedules and provide details on instructional materials and special education services.

Whether Minnesota’s’ online programs will come to exist remains to be seen, as does whether the school systems that choose to serve students online will apply lessons gleaned from the last 18 months of distance learning, will hand the challenge off to a for-profit company or are simply keeping their options open.

Pre-pandemic, the state authorized 38 online schools using a variety of models. The department is eager to share the wisdom it has acquired over the years with school systems, says Plaman, but first needs to help districts and charter schools start the year ready to serve kids in person or online.

In California, teachers union disputes prevented a number of large districts from reopening for any in-person classes last year. In an attempt to force school systems to open for face-to-face instruction this year, lawmakers allowed schools a highly restrictive option: Students who don’t want to come back in person must enroll under the state’s cumbersome independent study provision, designed to be a long-term alternative for a small number of elite athletes, child actors and other kids in exceptional circumstances.

In Texas, education officials in March invited districts and charter schools already performing well on state report cards to apply to a program that would provide support for new high-quality virtual and hybrid schools. Between the appetite for innovative ways to supply good options to students in large rural districts and the Texas Education Agency’s success at using incentives to persuade school systems to pilot new programs, dozens of school systems applied.

The program’s existence, however, hinged on lawmakers agreeing to fund online classes. On the last day of the legislative session, some Texas Democrats walked out to deny Republicans the quorum needed to advance bills restricting voting rights. As a result, despite bipartisan support, legislation establishing and funding the program did not pass.

Before the pandemic, leaders of Great Hearts, a network of high-performing public charter schools in Texas and Arizona, had been considering creating online schools in part to provide an option for families who live in communities that are too small to merit their own school building but who are eager to participate in the schools’ classical education model.

In January 2021, the network opened a full-time virtual school in Texas with its own staff and 500 students. Its initial results were so promising that Great Hearts Online President Kurtis Indorf was invited to talk about the lessons the new online school’s educators learned in those first few months in front of school leaders who had applied to the state’s digital school program. He also testified before the legislature several times.

Among his messages for would-be online school leaders: Teacher quality matters more In remote classes than in person. To make strong academic gains, students — and their families — have to be engaged.

Which does not necessarily mean more live, or simultaneous, instruction online so much as educators who know their students and find a variety of ways to address their individual needs. “In a bricks-and-mortar school, if the door is unlocked you can go to school,” says Indorf. “In an online school, the teacher unlocks the door.”

The Texas online school had a long wait list for the 2021-22 academic year when the legislature adjourned. With teachers hired and 1,200 families enrolled, Great Hearts Online started the year as a private school. When the Legislature’s quorum was re-established in late August, two years of funding for pared-back online school programs passed out of committee handily and is expected to win full approval. When the law goes into effect, Great Hearts will convert back to being a virtual charter school.

Indiana has a painful history with online-only schools, following numerous scandals involving for-profit companies that misappropriated tens of millions in public funds, inflated enrollment counts and engaged in other irregularities. Yet, when the pandemic forced schools online, Brandon Brown, CEO of Indianapolis’s The Mind Trust and a longtime critic of for-profit schools, feared what might fill the vacuum if no quality alternative existed.

His nonprofit approached two local charter school networks with track records of success with low-income children of color — Paramount School of Excellence and Phalen Leadership Academy which, pre-COVID-19, was known for taking over and turning around struggling neighborhood schools. Overwhelmed by the details of trying to toggle in and out of in-person schooling, Indianapolis Public Schools leaders invited the two charter schools to join its Innovation Network, in which school teams have contracts giving them complete autonomy.

The arrangement works well for both the new online schools and the district, Brown says. The schools have access to district families looking for schools, and the district gets to keep the students in its enrollment counts and to report the innovative schools’ academic progress as its own for state accountability purposes.

The vacuum Brown feared, meanwhile, has not materialized in Indianapolis. The leaders of the new online schools had no need to turn to the for-profit providers that Indiana has struggled to regulate because both already ran academically strong in-person schools. Paramount’s and Phalen’s leaders and teachers, he says, have spent most of their energy figuring out how to ensure strong relationships between teachers and students in a remote setting.

Early in the pandemic, Indianapolis city and education leaders were quick to turn to ask local nonprofits and social service agencies to help them create in-person learning pods, places where small groups of children could go for care, tutoring and enrichment activities that helped keep them from falling further behind than distance-learning students elsewhere. Paramount and Phalen both plan to keep the pod model going forward, Brown says.

“It’s actually pretty nuts-and-bolts stuff,” he says. “At the end of the day, our north star is being responsive to families and listening to what they want.”

In many places, districts have turned to commercial vendors for services ranging from digital curricula to the software teachers and students use to access classes to the instruction itself. Others have opened their own full-time virtual schools but require families to stick with their choice, whether it’s an online program or their neighborhood school. In some communities, it’s not clear whether schools can or will provide remote classes to quarantined students.

During the pandemic’s first year, governors used emergency powers to compel schools to provide distance learning options. The orders allowed states the legal flexibility to do things like take attendance when students are not physically present — a prerequisite for continued funding — and often mandated services like meal delivery and child care for frontline workers.

At the same time, in many places throughout the country, the vacuum Brown flagged has indeed been filled by educational technology companies that contract with districts to fulfill some or all of their digital operations. Stride, the new name of the publicly traded, for-profit K12 Inc., offers states and districts everything from individual course curriculum to “turn-key online school systems.”

The privately held company Edgenuity claims that more than 20,000 schools — including in 20 of the country’s 25 largest districts — use its credit recovery software, which was designed pre-pandemic to help students who were missing classes catch up. A host of companies catering to homeschoolers are also doing booming business. With district leaders stretched beyond capacity just to manage safe day-to-day operations of school in person, education technology company offerings are proving popular — even among districts that have decried pandemic enrollment losses to online providers.

Indeed, researchers predict continued shifts in enrollment, with some families choosing to keep their kids in virtual classes. A number of districts that have established permanent online programs have opened them to students statewide — a shift that could be a game-changer for bureaucracies accustomed to making major decisions through the lens of geography. Families in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, for example, may now choose between public online schools operated by low-performing St. Paul Public Schools or by Eden Prairie, a wealthy Minneapolis suburb whose pricey homes come with access to its sought-after district schools.

While Minnesotans have been able to enroll their children in districts they don’t live in for 30 years, most of the time parents who want the option have to drive their kids to and from school themselves. With school online, presumably that barrier is erased. Eden Prairie, the site of a recent exodus of white families angry about a school integration plan, could in turn lose students to other high-performing districts.

For Rausch, no matter the setting, there are direct and vital lessons for conventional districts and states from the effort to hold for-profit online schools accountable. Hard experience suggests that non-negotiable elements need to be specified up front.

Atop his list: State and district expectations for online school operators need to be clear and must include specific information as to how learning will be tracked and how gaps will be addressed. There must be “real teeth” if financial or operational performance criteria are not met. And, as in any venture where public funds are in play, there must be transparency.

“Virtual learning is going to be a component of the future,” he says. “It’s really important that we offer kids and families something that advances their interests. It’s not enough to just stand up a program.”

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provide financial support to Great Hearts and The 74.

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