In August, Rachel Carothers posted a back-to-school photo of her three children under a tree outside their home in McKinney, Texas, barefoot and holding laptops, with the caption, “No shoes necessary!” Earlier this summer, Carothers decided to switch her ninth-grade son Cai and sixth-grade daughter Adair from their local public school to an online charter school called iUniversity Prep. Now, Carothers devotes most of her time to homeschooling her youngest daughter Larkin, grade one, and checking in daily with Cai and Adair.
Carothers is just part of a flood of families that switched from brick-and-mortar to online schools this fall as the pandemic continued to upend school districts’ plans. Full-time online schools previously enrolled fewer than 300,000 students, according to the National Education Policy Center. K12 Inc., one of the largest, reported 57.1 percent growth in enrollment this year compared to September 2019. Mountain Heights Academy, an online charter school in Utah, shot from 801 students last year to 1,367 this fall, according to Principal DeLaina Tonks. Switching to virtual classes has brought numerous challenges for students and teachers alike, and online schools have the benefit of more experience. But not all are convinced that online education is an adequate substitute for in-person learning.
Pennsylvania-based Bridgeway Academy enrolled more than 2,800 students this year compared to about 1,700 last year. In September, the school shut down enrollment for weeks while administrators scrambled to catch up with demand. Head of school Chris Hardin said Bridgeway hired 40 teachers and about 15 advisers to guide families through enrollment and registration. The school anticipates another jump after the holidays if COVID-19 cases rise.
It’s not a seamless transition. Families new to virtual learning need more tech support, and Hardin estimates it takes a year for teachers to master online teaching.
Kate Kosh taught in Pennsylvania Catholic schools for six years before starting at Bridgeway this fall. She used to see parents of her students at the grocery store while buying milk. Now she teaches 50 fourth graders who live in California, starting after noon each day and answering emails until at least 8 p.m.
Early in the semester, Kosh said, some students cried with frustration trying to click from Zoom to an online quiz app. But they adjusted, and now beg for extra quizzes, she said. Without a controlled classroom environment, Kosh relies on carefully planned lectures to keep students engaged, plus interactive PowerPoints and bingo games. She still gets nervous about troubleshooting tech issues—glitchy internet or a student who can’t hear can eat up 45-minute class periods. But Kosh said most problems are quickly solved by exiting and reentering class.
Online, for-profit charters have drawn criticism for low performance, poor graduation rates, and high student turnover. In 2019, the Chicago Board of Education shut down Chicago Virtual Charter School.
Since switching to virtual classes during the pandemic, school districts have made headlines for poor online learning. Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest school district, reported the number of students earning an F in two or more classes rose from 6 percent to 11 percent. Renaissance Learning Inc.’s analysis of 2 million students during the pandemic found fifth and sixth grade students were on average 12 weeks behind in math.
But supporters argue that these challenges aren’t inherent to online learning. With years of experience, online schools are equipped to train teachers effectively and support families through the adjustment period. Small class sizes and accessible teachers who insist on participation can help keep students engaged.
In Texas, the Carothers family has had a mixed experience. Cai kept up in all his classes except English, where he is weeks behind. She said Adair struggles to stay on track, and the family skipped a weekend camping trip to let her catch up on homework. But Carothers considers these small hiccups compared to the potential upheaval of switching between in-person and online public school classes. The family hasn’t decided whether they’ll continue with online school once the pandemic ends, but for now, Carothers is confident it was the right decision. Unlike their previous school, iUniversity Prep has established systems for taking attendance and managing uneven internet during classes.
“They’re practiced, they’ve been using their software for years,” Carothers said. “They’re just so much less panicked.”