A Virtual Mirage

June 12, 2020 |

Full-time virtual schooling may be the darling for some education reformers right now, but it is not a solution for most of our children.

By Kaye Rogers, Ph.D.

Executive Director of Virtual Learning, iUniversity Prep, a Grapevine Colleyville ISD Virtual Academy

Even before schools began to close due to COVID-19, the calls and emails started.

As the Executive Director of Virtual Learning at the only public full-time virtual school in Texas with an “A” grade, districts across Texas and beyond have come with the same question: “How do we go full-time virtual?”

The answer I had to give was something most didn’t want to hear.

Going full-time virtual is not a solution for the overwhelming majority of students. A plug-and-play answer for high-quality virtual schools simply does not exist. Providing an exemplar virtual school requires a bottom line of students first, with an extensive infrastructure of support, tools, and high expectations. Most full-time online programs have poor results. A 2015 national study at Stanford found that performance in math equated to not attending school at all. There are important reasons why a full-time online program can’t serve most students.

"Going full-time virtual is not a solution for the overwhelming majority of students. A plug-and-play answer for high-quality virtual schools simply does not exist."

At iUniversity Prep, our full-time virtual school within the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District, we offer full-time virtual schooling. We are a magnet school and have baseline requirements for eligibility, along with a requirement of consistent WiFi. Parents also agree to be home with the student as we do not advocate leaving a fifth-grader home alone all day to attend virtual school. Once admitted into iUniversity Prep, we require extensive training and support systems for students and their families. Teachers hired at iUniversity Prep commit to summer training, extensive training throughout August, and an intensive yearlong mentorship. 

Our students have met eligibility requirements, and still the differences we see in their online learning skills can be as stark as a toddler’s first steps compared to the seasoned stride of a professional runner. Before they even take their first class, our students receive between 20 and 30 hours of training and support. We require intensive parental training and communication as well. For most, it takes about six weeks to make the transition. Carefully designed systems and frameworks support each child academically as well as emotionally. Even then, full-time online learning doesn’t make us the right fit for some students.

We enroll approximately 1,000 students and are the only full-time school in the state’s virtual school network to consistently succeed in the state accountability system. Of the 15,000 students in other full-time virtual schools in Texas, more than one-third attend a school that received a D. That poor track record, combined with the fact that full-time vendors serve less than one-half of one percent of our 5.4 million Texas students, is not a viable path out of the current pandemic.

If we simply allow more online schools operated by for-profit vendors to open, there is no doubt we will see a number of parents jump in, often in response to slick marketing campaigns. And if that happens, we will see a greater loss of academic skill for many students in this state.

There are, however, some smarter steps we can begin to take. Right now, school districts need to be developing three different contingency plans for the next school year: full-remote, hybrid, and full-time in-school.

If you are in a full-time remote situation, what will you do over the summer to train all of your teachers, students, and families to learn remotely, and what tools do they need to ensure access and a high-quality educational experience for all? If you can blend in at least some in-person instruction, what does that look like in terms of scheduling, training, and access? If you are in school as before, what are your plans for remediation and for keeping students safe?

Regardless of the option used, it will take a significant investment in WiFi access for all students in Texas and professional development for all staff before the next school year begins. Instead of being distracted by solutions that might only benefit some families, we need to focus on supporting our brick-and-mortar system, which is the only option with the capacity we need to meet the challenges ahead.

"Instead of being distracted by solutions that might only benefit some families, we need to focus on supporting our brick-and-mortar system, which is the only option with the capacity we need to meet the challenges ahead."

There will be other obstacles as well. We have already seen resignations in ours and other area districts as people are tapped out. The plans are still in development and the resources are tight. We need to develop support for our teachers–the training tools, checklists, and timelines–to make them feel secure that they can do this.

The good news, however, is that with the right training, curriculum development, and support, I firmly believe our teachers can get our students back to where they need to be. There are innovative examples of using technology to support classroom instruction. Some districts are planning for partial school weeks to allow all students safe access to schools, and working with technology companies to ensure all of our students are served. If we focus our time and federal funding on these solutions and not on the expansion of a product that would only benefit a few, we can become stronger for all students.

About the Author:

Dr. Kaye Rogers received her Ph.D. in Educational Administration with a minor in Statistics from the University of North Texas. A life-long Texan, she has taught math and science in public schools and also in Spain. She has worked in public education for over 20 years, where she is committed to innovation and choice for families. She has opened three choice schools and is currently the Executive Director of Virtual Learning at Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, where she oversees their state-wide virtual school and blended schools program. Dr. Rogers has been a part of virtual learning in Texas since its implementation.

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