Long ignored, private online schools see golden opportunity in pandemic

Private virtual schools say they can offer something even cyber charters cannot — maximum independence and flexibility.

Many cyber charter schools require students to log in every day or take a certain number of synchronous classes where students and teachers interact in real-time.

Laurel Springs has no such requirements. Classes are asynchronous, meaning students can complete them at their own pace. They can even start and end the school year whenever they want.

Kayla Shenk, the Laurel Springs senior, often works a bit in the morning, takes a mid-day break, and then revisits her studies around 6 p.m. She’s already finished one of her classes this semester, and she gave herself a week off around Christmas by plowing through assignments the weekend before.

“When I wanna do work and I’m just bored and really want something to do then I do some more work,” said Kayla. “It really depends on my mood.”

She admits that she’s a self-starter — unusually mature for her age. But the world of unusually mature students is larger than the world of child actors. It’s an emerging target demographic for schools like Laurel Springs, one that could nudge them from the educational fringe toward something that resembles a mainstream alternative.

“I really think we are at this tipping point of education,” said Palevich.

The future of school…and work?

One reason for Palevich’s enthusiasm has nothing to do with the recent disruptions to public education. It has to do with the disruptions to the world of work.

Many families could never have entertained a model as freewheeling as Laurel Springs because they needed some physical place to take their kids during the day while they work. Now, parents are getting a taste of what it’s like to work a flexible schedule from home. And they’re getting a taste of what it might be like to have a more present role in their kids’ education.

Palevich notes that enrollment in Laurel Springs’ elementary grades has nearly tripled. Parnell says Bridgeway Academy has also seen its largest growth in younger students.

Fusion Academy, a nationwide network of private schools that offers one-to-one instruction for students, recently launched a fully virtual online academy. It believes its scale allows it to offer course options that simply aren’t available to most students.

“We have 60 campuses across the country,” said Kristen Coyne, head of school for Fusion’s campus in Malvern, Pennsylvania. “If our campus doesn’t have a teacher that teaches Mandarin, but maybe a Los Angeles campus does, those teachers have been able to help our kids that want to take that Mandarin class.”

These schools hope their personalized education pitch will appeal to families that might have relied on traditional schools before, but now have the flexibility to supervise their kids during the day.

It’s a cultural shift online schools are watching closely. What if after the pandemic millions of parents suddenly have the freedom to work remotely?

“You could go travel or go vacation or move out of the city or work at the beach or whatever,” said Palevich. “Your child can take school with them just as you can take work with you.”

Sound like a fantasy? A nightmare?

That’s likely in the eye of the beholder.

Barbour believers most parents will be eager to get their kids back in a traditional school once the pandemic ebbs. Working from home while supervising school work has been an unholy strain on many families.

“They’re gonna slingshot [back] to what they’ve always done,” said Barbour.

That said, millions of families are being exposed to the dual worlds of remote schooling and work right now. If even a small percentage find that setup appealing and want to stick with it long term, their migration to online schools could transform this long-ignored corner of the education world.

“This is the disruption they were waiting for,” said Barbour.

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