Pandemic disruptions a win for virtual schools

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: virtual learning

Some schools are closing classrooms and going back to virtual lessons as COVID cases rise again. Of course this is a disappointment for many parents and students. But it’s not really a surprise—educators did warn about a return to online classes at the start of the semester. This time around though, the transition was a bit smoother, yet still disruptive to everyone involved.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Some parents decided early on to avoid the back and forth from physical to virtual schooling. They enrolled their children in virtual schools for the whole year. These are schools devoted to only online education.  

Joining us now to talk about this trend is Esther Eaton. She covers education for WORLD Digital. Good morning, Esther!


REICHARD: Tell us about these virtual schools. How do they operate, and how long have they been around?

EATON: Well, some operate a lot like your average brick and mortar classroom. So, they have live class periods and homework and students get to know their teachers and their classmates. And some are a little more self-paced. So, maybe students go through videos and lessons on their own. But they’ve been around awhile. The oldest one in the U.S. for K-12 students is Laurel Springs School and they were actually founded in 1991.

REICHARD: Did they see a big spike in enrollment this year?

EATON: Yes, they did. They did. One I talked to in Pennsylvania called Bridgeway Academy had 1,700 students last year and then they added 1,000 students this year. So, they actually had to shut down enrollment for a few weeks in September because they couldn’t keep up. And one of the biggest schools in this sector called K-12 Inc. reported that they had 57 percent growth over last year.

REICHARD: A lot of parents and educators say online classes are no substitute for in-person learning. Do these virtual schools have some of the same drawbacks as regular schools that temporarily go digital?

EATON: Well, there’s a key difference which is that these virtual schools have been doing this for awhile, so they know what they’re doing. They’re not making up as they go. So, for instance, one teacher at Bridgeway Academy said that if her internet goes bad—which still happens—and she gets kicked out of class, all her students already know that they can just sit tight and wait and that a replacement teacher will be in soon. And so you lose a lot less of the regularity that’s important for learning because they have these established systems.

REICHARD: What are the advantages of this option?

EATON: Some parents feel like it’s the best of homeschooling and regular school in one. So, one parent in Texas that I talked to said she’s loving having extra time with her kids this year while they’re online, but her kids still have dedicated teachers who are keeping them on track for her.

REICHARD: You’ve written previously about the increase in homeschooling during the pandemic and the speculation that that trend will continue as parents and students discover they like it. Do virtual school advocates think they have the same potential?

EATON: They definitely hope so. Bridgeway did an informal survey that found that about half and half of their new families thought that they would stay. So, that would still be huge growth for them. And they also think they’re going to have more growth next semester as schools go online and parents say, you know what, I’m out. So, they’re not sure. It’s hard to say, yet. But there’s definitely potential for growth.

REICHARD: Esther Eaton covers education for WORLD Digital. You can read more of her work at Thanks so much for joining us today!

EATON: Thanks for having me.

(Photo/Associated Press, Nam Y. Huh) Chicago charter school teacher Angela McByrd teaches remotely from her home.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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