Online Schools Are Here to Stay, Even After the Pandemic

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In a study by the RAND Corporation, “Remote Learning Is Here to Stay,” 58 out of 288 district administrators — roughly 20 percent — said their school system had already started an online school, was planning to start one or was considering doing so as a postpandemic offering.

“This is hardly a panacea or a silver bullet for public schooling,” said Heather Schwartz, a senior policy researcher at RAND who directed the study. But, she added, “there is a minority of parents, a minority of students and even a minority of teachers for whom virtual schooling is the preferred mode.

Yet a surge of online schools comes with risks. It could normalize remote learning approaches that have had poor results for many students, education researchers said. It could also further divide a fragile national education system, especially when many Asian, Black and Latino families have been wary of sending their children back to school this year.

“My fear is that it will lead to further fracturing and fragmentation,” said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Districts said they were simply responding to demand from parents and children who want to stick with remote learning — some because of student health issues, some because of concerns about bullying or discrimination in their school, and some who just prefer the convenience of learning at home.

Districts that fail to start online schools could lose students — along with government education funding — to virtual academies run by neighboring districts, companies or nonprofits, administrators said. To pay for the new online offerings, some districts said, they are using federal coronavirus relief funds or shifting resources from other programs.

Online schools began opening in the 1990s, some run by states or districts and others by private companies or nonprofit charter management organizations. But until recently, they played a niche role in many states.

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