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Even as COVID-19 infections continue to fluctuate, about a third of the nation’s largest school districts are ending their remote learning programs this fall, according to a new magazine by the Center for Reinventing Public Education.
Another third are continuing longstanding programs that were in place before schools closed, and the remaining third are operating new virtual programs created during the pandemic, according to the review.
The distinct approaches of the 100 largest U.S. districts suggest most are ditching remote learning entirely or reverting to programs that existed before the pandemic forced them to quickly provide all families with some sort of online option.
The halt to virtual programs launched during COVID shutdowns could mean they weren’t as effective or popular as those already in place before the pandemic upended US education systems in early 2020.
PERC, a nonprofit research center at Arizona State University, has been monitoring the learning options offered by the nation’s 100 largest school systems since March 2020. In its review this month of learning plans of districts for the fall, PERC found 35 that said they planned to end remote learning entirely, 34 that would continue virtual programs established before the pandemic, and 31 that would retain their new online options in the age of the pandemic.
For example, the Nevada Learning Academya virtual school in the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, has been operating since 2013. But the temporary distance learning programs individual Clark County schools launched last year suspended; The Nevada Learning Academy will be the only virtual option offered by the district in 2022-23.
In Colorado, Aurora Public Schools plans to continue the virtual school it opened last year for K-8 students, but only for students in from third to eighth grade.
Fewer students overall are eligible to enroll in district-run virtual programs this year than last year. In 2021-22, 56% of large urban districts offered remote learning options for all students. This year, that number has dropped to 46%.
In Detroit, the neighborhood tightened enrollment eligibility for its virtual school this year to try to improve attendance and reduce failure rates, according to Chalkbeat Detroit. Detroit Public Schools start the academy in 2021-22, intending to make it permanent, and had planned to spend $5 million on staffing. But he struggled with chronic school absenteeism, and hiring challenges have multiplied. This year, the school is not accepting students from ninth to tenth grade who were chronically absent last year and failed one or more core academic classes. The school also did not accept children in kindergarten through second grade who were chronically absent last year, according to the the school website.
Other large districts have pivoted to expand virtual options — either because students passed, or parents wanted them, or both. Four of the 100 major districts we tracked have expanded their virtual academies since the pandemic began. Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, for example, recently extended its full-day online learning option to K-3 students. But there has been strong demand from parents for Gwinnett County’s online program, which began in 1999. The district even extended the registration period to fall 2022 to respond to inquiries, according to documents that we examined.
Last fall, when PERC reviewed the learning models of large urban school systems for the 2021-22 school year, 94 of 100 large districts said they intended to offer learning to distance. This year, they understandably cut many of those programs as more students return full-time to in-person classes.
What is curious is that a majority of them do not keep anything developed during the pandemic, when educators have had to innovate quickly to reach all students. Some districts may end their programs because they have not achieved the academic quality of in-person classes or because interest has dropped among families. But the window is closing for districts to pursue pandemic-era innovations that have created new options for families. While virtual schooling has become a permanent part of some districts’ repertoire, it is unlikely to become a defining feature of urban public education in the years to come.
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