What to Know About K-12 Online Schools


As the continued spread of the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on school districts’ plans to offer in-person instruction this fall, some parents have started exploring whether a K-12 online school would be a better alternative.

Teenage boy listening to music while doing homework

(Getty Images)

But if parents want to move their children from a traditional school district to a full-time cyber school, it’s not as easy as flipping a switch. They will need to consult with local – and possibly state – education officials, determine the costs, and decide whether they and their children are ready for a new way of learning.

Here’s what you need to know about virtual schools – what they are, how you can determine which one might be right for you, and the level of commitment students and parents need for success.

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Online schools provide digital learning to students. Options range from online courses that supplement local school district offerings to full-time virtual schools children can attend from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Virtual schools started in the mid-1990s, says Richard E. Ferdig, Summit Professor of Learning Technologies and professor of educational technology at Kent State University. At the time, online schooling was more common at the middle and high school levels, partly because people thought it would be too difficult or would put too much strain on parents to provide virtual learning for the lower grades. But some of today’s virtual offerings fully cover the K-12 curriculum.

Here’s a look at the types of virtual schools:

All-online schools. All-virtual schools are allowed to operate across districts in 32 states, and about 375,000 students are enrolled in these schools, according to a 2020 report by the Digital Learning Collaborative, a group of organizations and companies providing data, information and best practices for virtual learning.

Most full-time virtual schools are charter schools that could serve an entire state, or they might be run by school districts. A virtual school’s schedule may be less rigid, but these schools still provide classes during a typical school year. The virtual model is often used by students who need scheduling flexibility – such as high-level athletes or entertainers and performers – former home school students, or students who might have mental or physical health needs that make virtual learning a good fit.

For-profit companies might offer K-12 virtual schools in your state or partner with another organization, such as an athletic training facility, arts academy or home-school cooperative. Companies might also operate charter schools on behalf of a local university, for example, or provide a private school option.

Hybrid schools. A hybrid school has a physical location where students can learn on-site, but students don’t have to attend in person on a regular basis and can take complete classes online. These are less common than all-virtual schools and often are attended by students who might be pursuing a job, internship or college credit or who need to catch up academically.

Supplemental. These schools provide online coursework – with an online teacher – that coincides with a school semester, often while the student is taking classes at a brick-and-mortar school. State virtual schools are located in more than 20 states. Most serve middle and high school students, while some provide courses for K-12.

“Parents considering online learning need to realize that not all programs are created equal,” Ferdig says. “Some draw on 25 years of research-based best practices, and some were – and still are – attempting to do this in an unprepared manner.”

The experience some online schools have in digital education could give them an edge on school districts that just started to offer remote learning in 2020.

A well-run virtual school will offer quality content created by teachers in partnership with experts in instructional design and web development, says Jamey Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of Michigan Virtual, a nonprofit focused on digital learning and teaching. For example, schools need to develop content that can be understood by all students, including those with hearing or visual disabilities.

Top virtual schools also have teachers who are trained at engaging with students virtually. Most teachers know how to build relationships with students in the classroom, “but how do you develop a relationship with a student you’ve never seen?” says Fitzpatrick, whose school served 30,000 online courses for students at almost 400 schools throughout Michigan in the 2018-2019 school year.

Virtual schools encourage parents or guardians to act as learning coaches. They also provide support staff, such as experienced special education professionals and team members who can help with testing and improving student outcomes, says Kerry Rice, professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Boise State University.

“You might also find that virtual schools arrange teacher support in unique ways. For example, they may assign a teacher to a family rather than to individual students by grade, to better optimize resources,” Rice says.

“They may also focus more on mastery learning and less on seat time as a measure of learning – this will depend largely on state regulations for attendance,” she adds. “The primary responsibility for delivering instruction, testing and grades, report cards, diplomas, and for reporting outcomes to the state is with the online school.”

Full-time virtual school also differs from home schooling, where a student might take some – or all – classes online but won’t get the support services available through a virtual school.

“Home schooling is different in that the parent is responsible for meeting state-level requirements and deciding on the curriculum and how it is delivered,” Rice says. “In other words, all of the responsibility for delivering curriculum is on the parent.”

Parents or guardians need to take a vital supporting role with students’ virtual education, no matter the grade level.

“You’re making a decision to play a part in your child’s education beyond just putting them on a bus or in front of a machine and saying, ‘Have fun. See you when you’re done with your classes,'” Ferdig says.

Online educators rely on mentor support for student success. When the student is in a hybrid program, the virtual school will work with an on-site staff member at the brick-and-mortar school to check on a student’s progress. But if the student is in an all-virtual school, the parent or guardian needs to engage frequently with the student in the home.

“Parents need to be organized and disciplined in order for this to be effective,” Rice says. “The younger the child, the more involved the parent will be.”

Parents can get involved by learning about the expectations for each class, understanding the type of support available, and helping children learn organization and time management skills, Ferdig says.

With virtual learning, parents need to stay in the role of supporter and not try to be teachers.

“This often happens in online learning where parents get too involved,” Ferdig says. “Such over-involvement hurts the student in many ways, including not letting the teacher see the true needs or skills of the child.”

Before enrolling their child in a virtual school program, parents should determine whether it suits the child’s learning style.

“We know that students who are internally motivated and have good management/organizational skills will do better than those who are unmotivated,” Ferdig says. “Parents need to take an honest look at their child and the skills or needs they bring to the experience. They should also have open and honest conversations with the virtual school they are considering to help determine if online learning is right for their child.”

The cost of a public virtual school might be free, covered just as a brick-and-mortar public school would be. But if parents choose a private school, costs will vary.

It’s a good idea to check with your local school district, regional education association or state education office to learn about approved virtual school options, Rice says. Or, parents might decide it’s best to enroll their students in a private virtual school.

“Parents can always choose to go to an online program,” Ferdig says. “Now it just becomes a question of who is funding that.”

Enrollment policies vary with virtual schools.

“If the school uses rolling enrollments, meaning students can enroll over extended periods of time, then there may be fewer opportunities for real-time, direct instruction,” Rice says. “These types of programs tend to be more self-paced, with targeted interventions when needed.”

Parents should learn what state and federal accreditations virtual schools have, especially if a parent enrolls a student in a private school responsible for following state regulations.

National accreditors include Cognia and the Middle States Association Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools. There are a variety of regional accreditors.

“Accreditation can be extremely important for college acceptance and admission, but also for ensuring that a school meets the standards for quality outlined by its accrediting agency,” Rice says. Virtual schools are accredited by the same agencies that review traditional schools.

In addition to checking a school’s accreditation, parents need to make sure the virtual school will fulfill the state’s K-12 educational requirements.

Other questions parents could ask include:

  • What does the school offer students with special needs? One important consideration is whether the school incorporates Universal Design for Learning standards. “You’ll want to look for schools that have dedicated special needs staff and who have the capability to provide services and therapies at a distance,” Rice says. “This can include services like speech therapy through Zoom sessions, or partnerships between online and traditional schools, or other community resources that can provide the services at a brick-and-mortar facility.”
  • Are teachers certified, and what type of training do they get?
  • Does the school have particular expectations for parents or the guardian/caregiver who will be helping the student?
  • What are the expectations for technology, and will the family be responsible for providing it?
  • How much time will students spend online, and what other activities will they engage in?

Rice also recommends that parents learn more about the school by:

  • Speaking to a parent who has a child enrolled in the school you are considering.
  • Reviewing parent surveys and feedback.
  • Asking for student outcome data and any plans for raising outcomes that are lower than expected.
  • Perusing school handbooks for information that outlines parent, student and school responsibilities.

“What you want are schools that take an active role in the learning process – they don’t just provide curriculum and a computer,” Rice says. “You’ll want to make sure that you’ll have the support you need.”


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