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How the Pandemic Is (Re)Shaping Virtual K-12 Learning

  • 7 Min Read

As we look to emerge from the pandemic, how will K-12 virtual schooling evolve?


The pandemic led to a dramatic and evolving shift toward online learning. What was largely a supplemental model for 5% of K–12 students became an essential strategy for safeguarding learning. As we look to emerge from the pandemic, how will K–12 virtual schooling evolve?

Two years ago, very few school districts operated or offered a full-time virtual or hybrid model. Now, many districts are launching virtual academies or extending hybrid options beyond emergency purposes, largely to address growing student and family interest. The opportunities don’t come without challenges. We still have to answer questions around effectiveness. Often, emergency-induced practices limited our ability to implement research-based practices.

We now have a unique chance to mature K–12 online learning by applying research and experience to meet demands for anytime, anywhere (and any pace) learning.

Understanding the Scale of K–12 Virtual Schooling

Before the Pandemic

Online or virtual learning can include a wide array of models. Here, we look at an instructor-led model in which teachers and students aren’t in the same physical location and instruction happens primarily on the Internet.

According to the Digital Learning Collaborative’s Snapshot 2020, approximately 1.5 million K–12 students in the U.S. participated in some form of virtual learning before the pandemic:

  • 375,000 students attended online schools in 32 states
  • 1,015,760 students enrolled in online courses offered by state virtual schools

Another 1.5 million enrolled in a hybrid program that mixed virtual/online and in-person, including often for credit recovery.

National Education Policy Center(NEPC) research, “Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2021,” gives us insight into the makeup of virtual schools up to the start of the pandemic. There were 477 full-time virtual schools that met the NEPC criteria for the 2019–2020 school year, including 239 district virtual schools. Among those, 50% were charter schools and 38% were run by private education management organizations.

Pandemic Virtual Learning

Virtual learning became widespread during the 2020–21 school year and took a few common forms:

  • students learning online from home, while their teacher was either in the classroom or at home
  • teachers concurrently instructing multiple student groups, with some in the classroom and others learning remote, with the groups often alternating
  • primary use of synchronous video to deliver live, direct instruction

We expect to see a return to in-person teaching in the 2020-21 school year. At the same time, we recognize that COVID-19 rates may impact those plans. Either way, schools are expanding virtual offerings to anticipate those safety needs and otherwise meet student needs and family expectations.

Virtual School Drivers in 2021 and Beyond

Prior to the pandemic, virtual school enrollment in North America was expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 13% between 2017 and 2021, as determined from a baseline of about 500 full-time virtual schools. How will the pandemic impact that growth beyond the emergency remote stage? K–12 virtual school offerings and enrollments have been traditionally driven by several factors:

  1. Course access: Students may seek access to classes that are not otherwise available in their school or district. These could include foreign language, STEM or other courses.
  2. State requirements: Several states have a graduation requirement that students complete one or more courses online. The reason: Online learning is an experience/skill that can help enable lifelong learning success.
  3. Student flexibility: Some students and families prefer the flexibility of online for academic or social reasons. Students could be used to being homeschooled, or they could be active in athletics.

The third category is likely to become the biggest driver of future virtual schooling growth. This is especially true for students who experienced and thrived with it for the first time during the pandemic.

In a fall 2020 survey, 58% of parents agreed that schools should continue providing the online or remote learning options for students even after the pandemic is over.

Virtual learning support and preference is often driven by the following views:

  • students with learning differences or physical exceptionalities may experience less anxiety or bullying and gain learning accessibility
  • asynchronous or mastery-model learning gives students with responsibilities outside of the classroom more flexibility, including those who need to work or care for family members
  • online learning can boost inclusiveness, engagement and success, especially for students who don’t feel well served by traditional models

The increase in homeschooling may also be contributing to the rise in virtual schooling. The percentage of students who are homeschooled has tripled since 2019. This year alone, the U.S. Census Bureau found that over one in twelve students were being homeschooled.

Schools are also facing competition from other districts, charter schools, and alternative providers. These can siphon away both students and the state and federal per-pupil funding that follows them. Providing virtual options may be a necessary step to maintaining students and budgets.

Virtual and hybrid schooling are on the rise. According to a recent EdWeek survey, the number of school districts planning to offer a full-time virtual schooling option will increase from 16% (pre-pandemic) to 46% in fall 2021 and beyond.

One final point is important to note: Not all states allow a virtual learning alternative, including due to regulations that define the number of days and hours of learning and limit alternatives for measuring or collecting those attendance hours.

Enhancing the Quality of Virtual Learning

The emergency deployment of online learning in 2020–21 reinforced the differences between purpose-built online learning experiences and those spun up in response to crises or disasters. Infrastructure, curriculum and instruction did improve throughout the year. Unfortunately, the continued often exclusive reliance on synchronous, concurrent, direct instruction often reduced engagement and differentiation.

Moving forward, there is a need to further implement evidence-based best practices for online pedagogy and classroom management:

  • The National Standards for Quality Online Learning include expectations for intervention and accelerated learning opportunities, interaction to support active learning, options for in-depth learning through authentic problem-solving and asynchronous and synchronous learning.
  • Quality Matters standards highlight that learning activities provide opportunities for learner-content interaction to nurture active learning, learner-instructor interaction and learner-learner interaction.

Quality virtual learning involves course design principles such as:

  • small group instruction
  • collaborative and project-based learning
  • opportunities for students to check their understanding
  • asynchronous or flipped learning
  • rotational models

Many of these practices are consistent with effective blended learning, providing opportunity to apply lessons learned from blended to virtual learning.

Building a Continuum of Blended to Online Learning

While K–12 learning will be in person for most students, virtual schools and online learning will likely grow at a faster pace than previously thought. This growth will be driven by:

  • the need for resilience to mitigate ongoing disruptions from the pandemic to extreme weather to demographic changes
  • the opportunity for flexibility to meet evolving circumstances and individual student needs

Ongoing adoption of effective blended learning enables an increasingly important dynamic continuum between in-person, hybrid and online learning.

Effective blended learning uses technology to support engagement, personalization, social-emotional support and deeper learning. It’s enabled by a robust learning management system (LMS), teacher professional learning, technology infrastructure and high-quality pedagogy and course content. It provides for embedded and authentic checks for student understanding, differentiation of instructional methods and content, project-based and collaborative learning and mastery-based approaches. All are important practices for effective hybrid and virtual instruction as well.

The Role of an LMS in Enabling Blended Learning and Virtual Schools

An LMS serves as the hub and acts as a single door to the classroom. Not all teaching, learning, and curriculum need happen digitally, but having ongoing access to and integration with digital content, platforms and tools supports classroom learning and virtual or hybrid models.

This type of digital learning continuum is one that districts began implementing with success before the pandemic. Now, it provides a path for all districts moving forward.

Written by:

Mark Schneiderman

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Table of Contents

  1. Understanding the Scale of K–12 Virtual Schooling
  2. Virtual School Drivers in 2021 and Beyond
  3. Enhancing the Quality of Virtual Learning
  4. Building a Continuum of Blended to Online Learning
  5. The Role of an LMS in Enabling Blended Learning and Virtual Schools