Most students are expected to return to class this fall, but the number of computer-learning students will likely stay well above pre-pandemic levels.
Many Michigan families and educators experienced virtual learning for the first time last year. This exposure – combined with current concerns over COVID – is likely to shape virtual learning in Michigan this fall and for years to come, experts say.
Questions remain about online education, from inequalities of access to poor academic performance. Students in fully online schools are disproportionately from low-income families and have historically fight. Some observers are also concerned that the expansion of online learning will increase the profits of charter school businesses.
However, Michigan’s virtual learning landscape is changing rapidly.
Some of these changes are linked to the pandemic: Educators are calling for changes to the rules governing emergency distance learning in the event of a COVID outbreak.
Other changes could be with Michigan for much longer.
The pandemic gave educators a crash course in virtual learning tools that are valuable even when students are learning primarily in person, said Sarayhu Bethamcherla, 17, senior at Troy High School and president of the Michigan Association of Student Councils. , who returns as a learner-person for his final year.
“I think virtual learning is sustainable. So many formats that they used can be kept next year, and that will be even more beneficial for us, ”she said.
Beyond traditional classrooms, full-time online education is growing. At least 18 new full-time virtual schools have opened since the start of the pandemic, in a bid to serve parents wary of COVID and the small number of families who have found they prefer online classes.
“This next fall will be the first opportunity since the start of the pandemic where we can really see what virtual learning could look like after the pandemic,” said Michael Barbour, a professor at the University of Touro in California who studies the virtual education.
During the pandemic, many districts switched between face-to-face and virtual training several times. The difference between the two was often minimal: teachers did the same things in a video conference as they would in a classroom.
This fall, some districts are taking a different approach, opening virtual schools with staff and teaching methods focused exclusively on online learning.
“They’re actually planning an online learning, when for the last year and a half we’ve just been putting band-aids on things,” Barbour said.
Like last year, it looks like COVID outbreaks may force some students to spend at least some time learning online.
With both teaching methods – full-time virtual and emergency distance – set to play a role in the lives of students this year, here are some of the major issues facing virtual learning.
Full-time online schools
While there is little data to support the educational outcomes of full-time virtual schools, their numbers are growing – a major expansion of the state’s e-learning systems.
“What we learned from the pandemic was that there were a significant number of students who really benefited from the virtual experience,” said RJ Webber, assistant superintendent of academic services at the Novi Community School District. , who is opening a full-time virtual school this falls. He said students benefit from virtual learning if, for example, they are feeling extremely anxious in school or have some other medical condition that makes it difficult to attend classes. Online learning is also useful for students who need a more flexible schedule.
Before the pandemic, about 1.7% of Michigan students, or 25,800 in total, learned exclusively online, more than any other state except Pennsylvania. according to at Evergreen Education Group, a consulting group focused on virtual learning.
The total has increased over the past school year. Enrollment in full-time virtual schools increased by nearly 10,000, even as total enrollment declined statewide.
Many of those students ended up at online charter schools, which operate some of the state’s largest K-12 virtual schools. Some of the biggest enrollment increases during the pandemic have gone to online charters.
Now, many large traditional districts want to compete with online charters and dozens of traditional districts that have already opened virtual schools. The new virtual schools that opened during the pandemic, most run by traditional districts, represent an increase of about 20% in the total number of all schools, a jump larger than any annual increase since Michigan’s first schools started offering courses exclusively online over a decade ago.
“We saw that there was a small but significant number of students opting for virtual high school after completing eighth grade in our schools,” said David Mustonen, spokesperson for Dearborn Public Schools, a large suburban Detroit district that is opening a fully virtual school this fall. “We started looking for ways to say, ‘Well, how can we compete with this? “”
Dearborn expects 485 of its about 20,000 students to enroll in its new virtual program this fall. Novi plans 375. National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter operator opening a new online school, hopes to enroll 850 students in grades K-12.
Detroit is also getting in the game, after the city’s school board unanimously approved a new full-time virtual school earlier this week.
“We believe the virtual school is here to stay,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. “It’s something to build for the future for students who thrive in the virtual space.”
Barbour said he is happy that more school districts are choosing to compete with for-profit virtual schools. Virtual programs receive the same amount of funding as brick-and-mortar schools, but are cheaper to run, and Barbour is concerned that private companies will reinvest savings in students.
The magnitude of these savings remains to be seen. The actual number of families who will opt for post-pandemic virtual education will only be known when the threat of COVID decreases, said John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group.
The programs “were doing surveys when the pandemic was most on the mind” for parents, he said. “There will always be an increase in full-time virtual registrations, but maybe a smaller number than you think. “
Not clear either: how will the new virtual schools behave academically?
These schools have a poor record in Michigan. Students who take courses in these programs fail about half of their courses, a failure rate well above the state average, experts say. Online charter school studies usually find poor school performance.
But those arguments do not take into account recent improvements in virtual learning as well as the quality of the various programs, said Melissa VanKlompenburg, director of the PrepNet Virtual Academy. The academy is a new K-12 virtual school that will be operated by National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter school operator that already operates dozens of schools in Michigan.
She said her school plans to hire 30 teachers and 30 paraprofessionals to serve 850 students, which would give them about one adult for every 14 students. She said that lots of contact with students is essential to ensure they complete their virtual classes.
“Students and teachers can learn to communicate, to build relationships, to create a culture that stands for a strong education in the virtual world,” she said.
After a year of frequent interruptions caused by COVID outbreaks, school officials say full-time virtual schools are attracting some families with the promise of stability.
“The virtual school allows parents who are concerned about possible changes to choose a cohesive learning model for the year,” said Catherine Woolman, assistant superintendent of education for the Port Huron school district, which will be opening a virtual school this fall.
Emergency distance learning
Most students in the last year have experienced some form of emergency distance learning. Many will likely do so again this year as school officials work to limit outbreaks linked to a new, more infectious COVID variant.
Yet districts still do not know how much flexibility they will have to switch to e-learning in the event of an outbreak. The state legislature authorized such changes last year, but the rules for this year are not yet in place, making planning difficult for administrators.
Martin Ackley, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education, said the department will soon issue guidelines to allow districts to transition to virtual education if they face outbreaks this year.
Another issue facing emergency distance learning is attendance rules, which some educators said were too onerous last year. To mark a student present, teachers had to document two individual study-focused interactions per week to count a student as present.
Sarah Giddings, a high school English and social studies teacher in the Washtenaw Middle District, said that while one-on-one interactions are important, the narrow definition of the state of interactions can make the conversations seem spurious. .
“Talking to a child about where he’s going to sleep tonight and how he’s doing after losing a family member to COVID doesn’t count as an interaction, so after that I have to be:” So how about this US History Mission? and I feel horrible, ”Giddings said.