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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Some like it virtual: Will online students learn less?

Enrollment is climbing in virtual schools, even as pandemic fears wane, reports Asher Lehrer-Small on The 74. Online schools saw an "enrollment explosion in 2020-21," he writes. That was no surprise. When "brick-and-mortar schools fully reopened and mask mandates fell, remote schools mostly maintained their pandemic enrollment gains — and in many cases added new seats." That is not what anyone expected.

Remote learning may have been a pain for some families, but others prefer it.

“It looks like it’ll stick,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “In some states, the numbers went up temporarily and came back down a bit. But overall, if [families] are staying for a couple of years, I would expect that they would keep it going.”

Pre-Covid research found "students at online schools score far worse on academic tests than their peers learning in-person, even when controlling for factors like race, poverty level and disability status," reports Lehrer-Small.

It wasn't clear whether students who choose to go virtual are weaker students than demographically similar students who stay in traditional schools. Perhaps the new virtual students will be those who tried it and did well. Or not.

Heather Schwartz, a researcher at the Rand Corporation who has studied virtual schools during the pandemic, told Lehrer-Small she's worried about the trend. “Until we have proof the virtual schools can perform just as well — for at least some students — as traditional public schools, yeah, I’m concerned,” she said.

I think what we're really seeing is many more people combining homeschooling with online classes. Parents who have the time and energy to supervise their children's and supplement what they're not getting virtually are likely to see good results. If it's all up to the virtual school, most kids won't do well.

I worry about the rise in anxiety and depression among young people that was made worse by school closures, masking and fear. Children can use remote education to feel "safer at home," avoiding the discomfort of interacting in person with others.

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