Virtual education gets a boost during the pandemic

By: - April 20, 2020 6:00 am
children at school looking at a computer

Children at school (photo by Lucélia Ribeiro, Creative Commons sharealike 2.0)

The clock is ticking. “DEADLINE” screams the text in all caps at the top of  the website for eAchieve Academy. A  digital clock counts down the days, hours and minutes left to sign up for online school next fall using the state’s open enrollment program, which allows families to transfer out of their local school districts. Sign up now, eAchieve Academy urges parents, and put your kindergartener through 12th grader in its virtual charter school for next year.

On television, eAchieve has been running commercials telling viewers to consider virtual school. 

In addition, television viewers in Wisconsin are subjected to a barrage of commercials from Wisconsin Connections Academy, a virtual school based in Appleton. In one ad, an elementary student stands next to an adult version of herself, the young virtual school student looking up to the successful, professional adult she became because of the Connections program.

The coronavirus pandemic, and Gov. Tony Evers’ announcement that the rest of the current school year will be cancelled, ramps up the pressure on parents to consider online schooling. Should they wait for the public schools to open next fall? What if there is a second wave of COVID-19, and schools are closed again? We know that virtual schools may not be the best for all children, but isn’t a virtual school better than no school? Time is running out. What should parents do?

The state Legislature to the rescue! On April 15, Evers signed an extension of open enrollment for another month to May 29. Parents have a little more time to decide how and where they want their children educated next year.

Most parents were not aware of the April 30 deadline anyway, says Christopher Schultreis of eAchieve Academy in Waukesha.  “Open enrollment was not on their radar before all this happened,” reflects Schultreis. “Parents who are calling are asking for things that they can do with their kids right now. They’re not really talking about next year.” 

Most virtual school providers are showing only a modest increase in inquiries about enrolling children for next year. Most parents are worrying about how to get through the next day, the next week, perhaps the next month; not about how to get through the next year.

Still, the countdown clock on eAchieve’s website and the commercials may grab their attention.

Constance Quade of IForward, a virtual school based in Grantsburg, says the school is “receiving quite a few calls inquiring about next school year.” 

Virtual school providers are changing

The landscape for virtual, online charter schools has changed in Wisconsin in just a few years. 

A handful of for-profit providers have consolidated their offerings into a small number of school districts. It is far more cost efficient to have one program with 800 students than to have four programs, each with 200 students. The two largest for-profit providers are a Maryland company called Connections, operating out of the Appleton school system and Virginia’s K12 which operates out of McFarland, Wisconsin. Waukesha’s eAchieve Academy once was a K12 corporate school; now it is independent.

Wisconsin has more than 40 virtual charter programs. There are two major charter consortiums. Jefferson and eastern Dane counties have formed a consortium of 15 school districts allowing for the catchy name, JEDI Virtual School. 

The largest consortium is Rural Virtual Academy (RVA) headquartered in Medford. RVA has grown from five school districts to 33 in central and northern Wisconsin.

RVA principal Charles Heckel explains how the program works and its advantages.

All the RVA employees are employees of the Medford school district. However, the students who are from the 33 consortium districts remain as students of their home districts. That means they can participate in local school activities, sports, and receive a local high school diploma. Students may participate using a computer at home, but some students actually go into their local school and login there. In addition, RVA provides some individual classes to participating high schools. A small school may lack a science or foreign language teacher. Students from those schools can receive instruction online from the school by way of RVA.

The individual school districts share in the benefits and costs of the program. They pay the Medford school system only an additional 5% fee for maintaining the program.

It’s still about the money

Nearly 60% of the RVA students come from outside the consortium districts. When Heckel gets a phone call from a superintendent or school board member complaining that RVA is stealing their students, Heckel tells them they can join the consortium. Yet one virtual school expert notes that RVA has put up billboards along the highways in the area inviting students into their school. That is drawing students from outside of the consortium.

“Open enrollment should not be a revenue source for any one district to fix their fiscal woes.,” says Heckel. Yet there is a lot of money to be gained or lost through virtual charter schools. That is why RVA, eAchieve and Wisconsin Connections Academy are willing to spend dollars to recruit students.

Without a physical building to maintain, buses to run, food services to deliver, a virtual school can dramatically cut costs. Yet state law allows virtual schools to collect the same amount of public money as a bricks and mortar school. And when a student transfers from a bricks and mortar school to a virtual academy, most of the money that pays for her education ($7,771 for the 2019-2020 school year) leaves her home school and transfers with her, 

The original home school is able to keep about $3,000 when a student leaves for another district or virtual charter. But there is no real cost savings when students transfer.

Every classroom has fixed costs. It costs the same amount of money to support a classroom teacher whether there are 20 or 30 students in the classroom. The same is true of the physical building, already purchased textbooks and supplies.

At what point do the numbers drop too low to support a foreign language teacher or a specialized program?

Joining a consortium like RVA can help schools lessen the impact but does not solve these problems

If you add together Wisconsin’s independent virtual charter districts with the consortium virtual charters, the number of Wisconsin school districts directly connected to a virtual charter reaches around 100 districts of the over 400 districts in the state.

But school districts that want to provide a virtual school environment do not have to go the charter school route. They can simply find the best practices and programs through the Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative, a partnership of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin eSchool Network, and Wisconsin Virtual School. The Collaborative partners with over half the school districts in Wisconsin.

Digital learning is no longer relegated to a small minority of schools and school districts within Wisconsin. It is widespread, and because of the coronavirus pandemic, online learning has quickly become the norm for many school districts and their students. Do we really need stand-alone, virtual charter schools anymore? Are they going away like the stand-alone school computer labs of just a few years ago, which have been replaced with computers in every classroom? 

Chances are stand-alone virtual charter schools will be around for some time, and the number of students they are serving will continue to grow, but the online educational opportunities in traditional schools are exploding, far beyond the reach of these charters.

Do virtual schools work?

Will parents reach out to these virtual schools now that the virus has closed down traditional bricks-and-mortar programs?

It all depends upon how their children’s schools are serving students during this pandemic, says Dan Rossmiller, Director of Governmental Relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB), which represents both virtual and traditional public schools in Wisconsin.

Rossmiller reels off a list of questions parents might be asking their schools:

“How did they respond in providing meals to students? How did they respond to supporting students’ social-emotional needs? How did they respond to meeting the needs of students with a disability who are now homebound? How quickly did they ramp up their online learning? How quickly did they get devices and conductivity into the hands of students so that they would be able to access online learning? What was the experience of the online learning and what was the attention that teachers were able to offer to individual students?”

If parents are dissatisfied with traditional schools’ adaptability during the pandemic, virtual schools have had their problems as well. National studies have raised serious questions about the quality of instruction and outcomes in such schools.

In Wisconsin, most virtual schools post lower scores on state report cards than their sponsoring school districts. Virtual school leaders respond by saying that virtual schools are often the last chance for students who have failed everywhere else. They have had poor attendance, low test scores, and had general problems in the bricks-and-mortar schools they attended in the past.

Dr. Michael Ford is associate professor of public administration at UW-Oshkosh. He has studied the turnover and achievement rates of students attending virtual schools in Wisconsin.

While he agrees that virtual schools often serve students who have failed in traditional schools, students in virtual schools show uneven outcomes. Ford was able to find matched samples of students (similar backgrounds, test scores, attendance, grades, etc.) comparing one virtual school to another. The success rates among different virtual schools varied widely.

One of the major problems virtual schools had, when they first became popular a number of years ago, was that they were heavily dependent upon a student sitting down in front of a computer plugging away independently at an electronic program.

For students who already had failed in traditional programs and may not have been highly motivated in the first place, working without in-person, adult supervision and encouragement was not the path to success.

“We have seen some improvement at some individual [virtual] schools, but overall, in Wisconsin, we see huge attrition rates,” says Ford. “About a quarter of the students who enter a virtual school are gone after the first year.”

Parental involvement critical

In order for a virtual school to be successful, there must be a mixture of online and hands-on instructions. Teachers can instruct students one-on-one remotely through video conferencing, but having an adult at home to help guide instruction is often necessary. For elementary students, home support is critical.

However, Ford questions whether virtual schools have changed much in the way they are delivering instruction. “I base it upon the fact that results still are not there.”

What parents are learning during this time when school buildings are closed is that the parent must become the major provider of educational support. That is even true in school districts that have aggressively turned to online instruction, especially for elementary students.

So will parents quickly sign up for virtual schools for the coming school year? Clearly some virtual school providers hope so, given their aggressive advertising leading up to the open-enrollment deadline. But parents who have gotten a taste of online instruction during school closures have learned that virtual education requires a lot more than just sitting their children in front of a computer. There is also the question of childcare when parents who are working at home because of the pandemic must return to the office.

“Virtual education is not for everyone. It requires a fair amount of self-discipline. It may be something that works well when parents are around, and works less well when students are on their own,” says Rossmiller.

Chances are that traditional schools have been forced to dramatically change the way they provide instruction. More schools will “flip” their classrooms, having students watch instructional videos at home and doing what was often called homework in the classroom. More instruction will be individualized. Instruction will cross school and district boundaries. All these things were happening before, but will likely continue at an accelerated rate.

In the end, parents may be thrilled to see school buildings open again. Their children will be glad to physically reconnect with their classmates. Mom and dad will forward to sitting down in an easy chair and having a cup of coffee.

Perhaps parents will have a newfound respect for all the work and dedication of classroom teachers. Parents may realize that they must play a major role in the education of the children. Just maybe, our educational system will come out better on the other side.

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Terrence Falk
Terrence Falk

Terrence Falk worked for more than 31 years as a Milwaukee Public School teacher and served for 12 years on the Milwaukee school board and as Milwaukee's representative to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, Science Magazine, Urban Milwaukee and School News.