5 Things to Know About Virtual Academies

remote learning
Virtual academy public school options have been created or are in the works at districts across the U.S. (Image credit: Pixabay)

In the 2021-22 school year, Highline Public Schools in Washington will launch the Highline Virtual Academy for grades 6-12. 

The pandemic has demonstrated how well online education can work for certain students and now district leaders are looking to permanently integrate it into education.

“We never wanted this to be a COVID response as much as it is a learning response,” says Dr. Ben Gauyan, Highline Public Schools’ Instructional Leadership Executive Director. “We really see this serving the kind of students that learn best in this environment.” 

Amy Carlson, Highline Virtual Academy principal, says she’s hearing from students interested in attending the virtual school who were forced into distance learning during the pandemic but excelled there. “It was helpful for them to not have the distractions of their peers, so that they were able to just focus on their schoolwork,” she says. “They mentioned seeing an increase in their grades and discussed being interested in having their school day be a little bit more self-paced and taking more ownership of their daily schedule.” 

Buckeye Elementary School District in Arizona launched an online-only school this year and about 5 percent of students in the district have enrolled. Superintendent Dr. Kristi Wilson anticipates this number decreasing as parent and student concern around COVID safety dissipates, but the district is committed to having an online school even in a post-pandemic world. “We will continue to offer it because it does meet the needs for some of our students. We just feel like it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “We want to offer a continuum of support and services for all students.” 

In districts across the U.S., similar online-only virtual academy public school options have been created or are in the works. According to a February survey from Rand Corporation about 20 percent of U.S. districts are considering offering a virtual school option going forward. 

1. Virtual Academies Are a Great Fit for Certain Students  

“Students find virtual school for a really broad variety of reasons,” says Dr. Hope Dugan, regional support coach for the South Carolina Department of Education, in which virtual academies were thriving long before the pandemic began. 

Some students are elite athletes, artists, or performers who want to continue their education while pursuing excellence in their field. Other students are drawn to virtual academies because of requirements they have outside of the school day. “They are parents, they are working in a family where they need to bring in an income to help support the family, or they are required to help support younger siblings or elderly family members,” Dugan says. “Then you have kids who have bullying issues, LGBTQ issues, medical issues--all of those find virtual school.” 

Finally, there are students who may do better sleeping later and/or being less distracted at home and many who just like the convenience of what Dugan calls, “Anytime, anywhere, any path, any paced learning.”

2. There Are Technical Challenges as Well as Solutions

In Michigan, the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district’s digital academy launched at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year and serves 3,700 of the district's 17,000-plus students. 

Many students within the district have been issued chromebooks, which get students online but don’t have enough computing power for certain classes, says Beth Rayl, chief academic officer. For CTE, STEM, graphic arts, business and other classes in which more computing power is necessary, the district partnered with Dell Technologies to implement a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, which allowed students to run more advanced programs from their devices, regardless of that device’s capabilities. 

“A chromebook is very different from a high-end laptop or some of the lab machines that we could use on site,” Rayl says. “So we implemented the solution to allow all of our students access to all of those content pieces while they were working remotely.” 

3. Virtual Academies Are Not Easier for Students or Teachers

There are many great things about online education but an easier workload isn’t one of them, says Bradley Mitchell, director of the Office of Virtual Education for the South Carolina State Department of Education. 

“Students often believe that virtual courses are easier and contain less requirements than a face-to-face class; however, our years of experience have shown us that this is not accurate,” he says “In a traditional class, the classroom teacher is with the students daily and will help to motivate students, keep them on track, and will be able to quickly see when students may not understand a concept. In a virtual class, the student is more responsible to direct, motivate, and advocate for themselves. When a virtual student knows that they are not understanding a concept – they will either need to request additional support from the teacher or find additional resources to help them understand the topic.” 

Teachers also sometimes have the misconception that teaching online will be less work and that converting a face-to-face lesson to online is easy. “There is a lot of additional work that a teacher must do to guide students through the work that they are doing in an online class,” Mitchell says. 

4. Virtual Academies Can Be Effective for Younger Students if a Good Connection is Established

“At the high school level, the communication is largely between the student and the teacher-- that student is old enough, they can be independent enough, they’re self-motivated enough and have the skills to to do what they need to do,” says Josh Kitchens, executive director of South Carolina Connections Academy, an online-only K-12 public school that launched in 2008 and now serves 6,200 students with a staff of more than 200. 

“Across the grades, parental input is key, but at an elementary level there really is a need for a strong partnership between the parent and the teacher,” Kitchens says.  

The key for success in any setting at any age group is strong relationships between educators and students and their parents. Kitchens says this dynamic is even more important in virtual school and you may need to work harder to develop it. 

5. There’s High Educator Interest Virtual Academies but It’s Different From In-Person Learning 

Virtual academies generally require educators to be licensed to teach within the state and to live within or near the area the school serves. But even so, many educators are intrigued by the prospect of working from home on a permanent basis and by the more flexible hours some virtual academies might offer. 

Gary Loup, director of TeacherJobs.com, a teacher placement office, says many educators have reached out to him interested in the remote-only type of asynchronous teaching some virtual academies offer. “There's definitely a good pool of applicants who would love to teach remotely for safety reasons or others,” Loup says. 

While some virtual academies offer synchronous classes, many instead provide asynchronous material to students and prioritize one-on-one interaction between teachers and educators. Teaching in this setting is different from teaching a traditional class, or even in the remote synchronous classes many have been conducting during the pandemic. It’s certainly not for every educator. 

“There is a different delivery system virtually, you have to think differently and meet children where they are, which requires a lot of individualized instruction,” says Alicia Hughes, principal for high school students at South Carolina Connections Academy. “There's not a lot of whole group, ‘Let's teach to our 40 kids in this classroom.’ It’s more, ‘Okay, where's Alicia? Where's Josh? Where's Eric? Okay, I’m going to get with Alicia at this time and Josh at that time and Eric at that time, because they are all different pages of the book.’ That's the biggest challenge, and if you're willing to have that flexibility and throw away some of what you've done for a long time, you'll be really successful.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.