It goes without saying that school looks much different this year. With all of the uncertainty and change, this is an opportunity for school districts to offer virtual programs that provide families with alternative options to keep students in their home district.

After months of experiencing virtual learning up close, many families have decided what works and what doesn’t when it comes to supporting their students’ unique needs. And some students have discovered that they prefer virtual learning to the traditional in-class environment for a variety of reasons—they’re able to stay more focused on their work without the distraction of the classroom, they have less anxiety than when they are with their peers, or they want more one-on-one instruction. For some students with health conditions, online school may be their only viable option.

Before the school year began, both parents and teachers voiced concerns about resuming in-class instruction. For example, a USA Today poll conducted this past summer found that 60 percent of parents with at least one K–12 child said they would likely pursue at-home learning options rather than send their child back to school in the fall. Thirty percent said they were “very likely” to keep their children at home.

The same poll found that 1 in 5 teachers were unlikely to return to reopened classrooms. Districts may have addressed these concerns in their reopening plans and found that the current situation requires further action. Even as school is underway, it’s not too late to start a new virtual program or expand upon what is already in place.

Why Add a Virtual Program?

The virtual school model provides options to expand learning opportunities beyond school walls and ensures that all students have access to high-quality instruction. Offering a fully virtual program that provides courses for original credit and for credit recovery toward grade-level advancement or high school graduation means that students can remain in their districts and families can maintain a connection to their school communities. An increasing number of districts are adding their own online schools to provide this option for in-district students.

Virtual programs can help districts address issues that have been exacerbated by school closures. Students who have returned with significant learning gaps can access a more individualized curriculum that provides remediation and allows them to learn at their own pace—which can be the difference between getting back on grade level and falling further behind.

Many areas of the country had persistent teacher shortages before COVID-19, and with more teachers considering retirement, recruiting has become more of a challenge, particularly in rural areas. A virtual program enables districts to broaden their search for educators and offer more flexibility in how they work. In addition, virtual programs can mitigate budget constraints associated with accommodating social distancing requirements.

How Are Districts Using Virtual Programs?

Schools that operate entirely at a distance must determine how to communicate with students, engage them in their learning, and teach challenging subjects—especially math—entirely online. This is a major undertaking, but online schools can help guide districts that have not previously offered a fully virtual learning option.

Meeting Diverse Needs at Big Rapids Virtual School

Big Rapids Public Schools in Michigan has been able to keep students within the district through a virtual program that offers more learning options. Big Rapids Virtual School serves students with diverse needs, including those who are homebound, have disciplinary suspensions, or whose life situations preclude a traditional classroom environment.

As a seat-time waiver program, Big Rapids Virtual School allows students to work remotely—they only need to be on-site to take tests. The Virtual School has been an economical and efficient way to provide an alternative option for students and a source of revenue for the district.

School leaders believe that the success of the Virtual School comes from the high-quality digital curriculum that allows educators to focus on mentoring each student and building one-on-one relationships.

Flexible Options for College Prep at Temecula Advantage Virtual School

Temecula Valley Unified School District in California was looking for a solution that would offer students the option of a college-prep education with the flexibility of using digital curriculum in a nontraditional setting. The Temecula Advantage Virtual School prepares students for a four-year college due to the rigor of the online program, and it also keeps them within the district.

Adding a new AP Environmental Science course has had a significant impact on the number of students coming to Temecula Advantage Virtual School for AP courses and has enabled the district to secure academically stronger students. This has opened the door for more students to take AP courses through the virtual school—and overall students have found the virtual program to be far more rigorous than they expected.

Moving Forward With Virtual Learning

Whether a district is establishing a new virtual learning program or expanding a current one, administrators and educators have the opportunity to think about how they can educate their students in a different way yet maintain the foundations of effective teaching and learning. Within a changing educational environment, school leaders can continue to improve and provide better programs that make a positive and lasting impact in their students’ lives.

Chuck Lanphier is vice president of client services at Apex Learning Virtual School (ALVS).