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Guide to online school for kids this fall

We break down your options for distance learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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Young girl sitting in front of a computer screen completing online school from home.

Making choices about where your child will go to school isn’t easy, especially in the forefront of a constantly changing pandemic. As schools determine the best coronavirus safety measures and the right technology combinations for their buildings and students, parents are clamoring for details.

Unfortunately, there are few perfect solutions. Parents must balance health concerns with educational quality, makeshift work schedules, childcare concerns and economic questions.

As you weigh your own family’s needs with the options available in your district, we break down the most common types of distance learning to help you decide what might work for you and your child.

3 types of virtual programs through your school district

As the coronavirus rages on across the US, many public schools are offering some type of virtual learning opt-in — even if in-person classes still take place.

Programs vary by city and state, so check with your local school system to learn which of these three common types of learning are available to you, including whether or how often you can choose among them as the school year progresses.

Option 1: Full-time self-guided virtual program

  • Parent involvement level: Medium to high
  • Cost: Free — paid for through taxes

Self-guided virtual learning — also called asynchronous learning — typically involves a menu of options or a preplanned “path” that students follow on their own. There’s no set schedule or daily bell times for students to be present online. Instead of real-time teaching, students watch prerecorded videos, access curated online resources and complete work on their own schedule.

Although your child won’t learn from a live teacher, they can reach out to one for help. Most public schools offer a dedicated teacher to help answer questions or troubleshoot tech. But student-to-teacher ratios may be higher than traditional classrooms, and opportunities for personal contact or building relationships may be limited. With self-guided virtual learning, parents are often required to support their children in the role of co-teacher or tutor.

Because of this, asynchronous virtual programs might not be a good fit for younger students who can’t yet read — you could end up taking on the brunt of the teaching yourself. Instead, this type of learning is ideal for self-motivated middle and high school students who don’t require much parental involvement to stay focused.

Pros and cons of self-guided virtual learning
  • Students work along a learning plan at their own pace
  • No set schedule or bell times
  • School district usually offers computer lending programs and tech assistance
  • Paid for through federal, state and city taxes
  • Connection to local school district eases transition back to in-person classes
  • Required to hire certified teachers
  • High level of parental involvement may be required to keep students on track
  • Limited opportunity to collaborate with peers
  • Limited personal contact with teacher
  • May be difficult for younger students or those with learning disabilities to stay focused
  • Limited access to shared school materials, like science labs and leveled reading books

Option 2: Full-time virtual program with live lessons daily

  • Parent involvement level: Medium
  • Cost: Free — paid for through taxes

Your local school district may offer real-time virtual learning — also called synchronous learning. At the same time each day, students log in to a lesson and see their teacher on screen. In addition to basic instruction, students can ask questions and participate in discussions with their peers. This model offers the safety of learning entirely from home with the benefit of interacting with peers and the opportunity to form relationships that can eventually transition to in-person classes.

Virtual live lessons also mean that students have a dedicated teacher, so parents don’t have to shoulder as many tutoring responsibilities. The same teacher is available to communicate with parents about expectations, concerns or resource assistance.

Even though students are engaging in live lessons, this might not be the best choice for parents of younger children with limited attention spans or older students who struggle with staying focused.

Pros and cons of virtual school with live lessons
  • Preset daily schedule
  • Students can get immediate answers to questions
  • Time to collaborate and discuss with peers
  • Personal connection with teachers
  • Local district may offer computer lending programs and tech assistance
  • Paid for through federal, state and city taxes
  • Connection to local school district eases transition back to in-person classes
  • Required to hire certified teachers
  • Preset schedule may not match a household’s work commitments or access to computers and Internet
  • Limited scheduling flexibility
  • Reliable, robust Internet is needed to support live instruction
  • Requires quiet space to work so students can keep their mic on during live discussions
  • Limited access to shared school materials, like science labs and leveled reading books

Option 3: Hybrid program of virtual school and in-person classes

  • Level of parent involvement: Medium to low
  • Cost: Free — paid for through taxes

To keep physical class sizes small, many school districts are turning to hybrid models. Most models rely on a system of alternating attendance — for instance, half of the students attend school for two days while the other half learns online, and then they switch. One day is typically set aside for deep cleaning the building while students learn online or meet in small groups.

During virtual days, students learn online either through self-guided work or prerecorded teacher lessons. Online work is related to in-person class time, which offers some learning accountability and extra support for struggling students. During in-person school days, students can form crucial peer and teacher relationships, get immediate feedback and use specialized school equipment. This is especially good for younger children who are still learning and developing social skills.

Smaller class sizes in hybrid models also mean that schools can follow otherwise difficult safety protocols like social distancing. It also helps districts minimize community transmission risks by limiting student interaction to only half of the class at any time.

Even with smaller class sizes, your child runs the risk of exposure to COVID-19. If you’re considering this option, ask for your school’s reopening plans to review how it anticipates mitigating and handling coronavirus cases — including building ventilation measures, how it will provide testing and contact tracing, student mask requirements and other safety precautions.

Pros and cons of hybrid learning
  • In-person classes increase work flexibility for parents
  • Hybrid model allows for smaller classes that limit virus exposure and give attention to small groups of students
  • Opportunities to build peer and teacher relationships
  • Access to specialized school equipment, like microscopes and dissection kits
  • Local school district may have computer lending programs and tech assistance
  • Tuition free
  • Connection to local school district eases future transition back to fully in-person classes
  • Required to hire certified teachers
  • Limited schedule flexibility
  • Children in the same household might go into building on different days
  • Risk of COVID-19 transmission associated with in-person classes
  • In-person classes could shut down after on-campus coronavirus case
  • Limited access to shared school materials, like science labs and leveled reading books

Other online school options outside your local district

If your local public school isn’t offering online learning, you still have access to virtual and at-home learning options.

Online K-12 public and charter schools outside your district Online private schools Homeschooling
How it works State and federally funded schools operate entirely online; live and self-guided programs available Privately operated online programs funded by tuition; live and self-guided programs available Parent-directed education takes place primarily at home
Level of parent involvement Medium to high Medium to high Intensive — parents plan, facilitate and give feedback on all student learning
Typical cost Free $1,000 to $5,000 a year Varies
Learn more Learn more Learn more

Online K-12 public and charter schools outside your school district

  • Level of parent involvement: Medium to high
  • Costs: Typically tuition-free, but plan to pay for school supplies, Internet and computer

Even before the coronavirus, online public and charter schools offered tuition-free, virtual education to about 300,000 students across the US. Because schools receive state and federal dollars for each enrolled student, enrollment is typically open to all students in a designated geographic area, usually an entire state. Large networks of virtual charter and public programs like Connections Academy and K12 can quickly connect you with an option in your state.

In the past, out-of-district online programs offered important flexibility typically unavailable in local school districts — often a combination of self-paced learning and live, virtual instruction. As the coronavirus pandemic pushes local school districts to offer online options, parents can now weigh flexibility needs with academic concerns.

How does online public education compare to in-person lessons?

Online public and charter programs often tout personalized learning as a cornerstone of their programs. But that doesn’t always translate into stronger student achievement. Students enrolled in out-of-district online public and charter school programs typically perform worse than their in-district peers, according to a 2019 National Education Policy Center (NEPC) report. And students who transfer into virtual charter schools midyear often see negative effects on their achievement test scores compared to their traditionally educated counterparts.

Virtual public schools are also known for larger student–teacher ratios than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. The average student–teacher ratio at physical public schools is 16 students for each teacher, according to a 2018 NEPC report. Meanwhile, virtual public schools average 45 students per teacher — nearly three times that of in-person classes.

Pros and cons of online public and charter schools

  • Maximum flexibility
  • Additional choice if your local public school district doesn’t offer online options
  • Experienced infrastructure for technological issues
  • Usually tuition-free
  • Poor academic track records
  • Allegations of financial mismanagement
  • Often larger student–teacher ratios
  • No opportunity to transition to in-person courses and keep the same teachers or peers
  • Many states require teachers to be certified, but not all

What is the success rate of students who switch to virtual charter schools?

Students attending virtual charter schools fall short of their brick-and-mortar, in-district peers in nearly every achievement category — including on-time graduation rates, math and reading growth on state tests and state report card grades, according to a 2019 NEPC report. Virtual charter school leaders argue that students who attend their programs are already struggling to meet state benchmarks before they enroll.

Despite overwhelming evidence that students enrolled in virtual charter schools perform poorly compared to their peers, most research compares virtual charter programs to in-person education, rather than other district-operated virtual learning programs.

Virtual charter schools in the news for financial mismanagement

Unlike your in-district public school, virtual charter schools are operated by for-profit companies in addition to state entities. And many programs have struggled with allegations of financial mismanagement.

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio’s largest K-12 virtual charter school, abruptly shut down in 2018 amid growing scandals of inflating attendance records to siphon state funds. Chicago Virtual Charter Schools was investigated in 2019 for questionable spending by school administrators and was eventually shut down. And EPIC Charter Schools is currently under investigation for taking advantage of state funding by enrolling “ghost students” — private school and homeschool students who receive little to no instruction from EPIC teachers.

Online private schools

  • Level of parent involvement: Medium to high
  • Cost: Tuition ranges from about $1,000 annually to pay-per-course arrangements — typically less expensive than brick-and-mortar private schools

Online private schools offer a range of options — from exclusively self-paced learning to small group instruction with one-on-one teacher check-ins. Private schools can also offer religious or faith-based instruction. Most online private schools have open enrollment with some programs, allowing students to enroll at any point in the year.

Because private online schools don’t qualify for most state and federal funding, students pay tuition. Some private online schools offer need-based scholarships and even a few tuition-free spots. Review the individual school websites for details.

Pros and cons of online private schools

  • Maximum flexibility
  • Additional choice if your local public school district doesn’t offer online options
  • Experienced infrastructure for technology
  • Customized programs support religious and cultural affiliations
  • Not required to hire certified teachers
  • Limited information available on state testing or other measurable achievement outcomes
  • Limited opportunity to form local relationships
  • No opportunity to transition to in-person courses and keep the same teachers or peers

Homeschooling

  • Level of parent involvement: High
  • Cost: Varies widely

Homeschooling is 100% directed by parents — right down to the daily schedule and selected curriculum. Parents act as teacher, scheduler, guidance counselor and field trip organizer.

While parents have full control, they also bear the full cost of purchasing curriculums and the responsibility for academic progress. Parents who choose to homeschool can purchase curriculum sets that cover all subjects for a grade, incorporate individual curriculum bundles that cover just one subject like reading or math or piece together online resources to meet student needs.

Some curriculums like the popular Eureka Math and its online practice companion Zearn are entirely free, while EdReports offers reputable, research-based curriculum reviews for popular learning programs. Access learning standards on your state’s department of education (DoE) website for an overview of what students should be learning at each grade level.

While purchased or online curriculums offer some support, parents can also reach out to homeschooling groups or online forums for assistance.

Since every state has different homeschool laws — including how you notify your public school district, teacher certification requirements and whether your children need to be immunized — we recommend reaching out to your state’s DoE to make sure you know all of the facts before pursuing this option.

Pros and cons of homeschooling

  • Maximum schedule and curriculum flexibility
  • Self-selected curriculum, pacing and location
  • Ability to integrate field trips and hands-on learning
  • Can tailor to your child’s interest, religious affiliations and cultural connections
  • Intensive parental involvement
  • Parent expertise may not extend to some subject areas
  • Limited governmental financial assistance
  • Parents need to seek out peers and community opportunities themselves

Compare K–12 online schools and homeschooling curriculum

Data indicated here is updated regularly
Name Product Type of school Grade levels Tuition and fees
K12 Online Public School
Online public school
K–12
Free
Connections Academy
Online public school
K–12
Free
Epic Charter Schools
Online public charter school
PreK–12
Free
Time4Learning
Time4Learning
Online homeschool curriculum
PreK–12
Starting at $19.95 per month
Acellus Academy
Online private school
K–12
$249 per month or $2,400 per year
loading

Compare up to 4 providers

How to choose an option that’s best for your child

With shifting coronavirus threat levels and varying family contexts, there’s not a universal “best” for all families. Instead, consider the needs of your child and household when deciding on an option that fits your circumstances.

And rest assured that you can change your mind: Many public schools plan to allow students to transition from online to in-person classes as coronavirus cases decline, while others are building in the option for parents to rethink their decision at the end of a semester. Give yourself grace as you consider your options and settle on a choice.

Other factors to weigh into your decision include:

  • Medical vulnerabilities. Consider if your household’s health concerns and responsibilities demand 100% virtual education or a gradual transition to in-person classes later in the school year.
  • Level of parental involvement. Realistically evaluate the time, effort and expertise you can dedicate to schooling against work and other responsibilities. Perhaps you don’t mind enforcing work time, but aren’t comfortable teaching advanced math directly. Evaluate which roles you’re comfortable taking on, and use it when finding a suitable program.
  • Access to technology. Take a critical look at Internet availability and computer access in your home. Will your child have a quiet, dedicated space to stream live videos? Are your current devices suited for a workload that’s entirely online?
  • Comfort with technology. Consider your own threshold for dealing with frustrating tech issues, like missing passwords and glitchy programs. Do you prefer a dedicated teacher to answer your questions, or are you open to reaching out to a tech department help desk? As you choose a schooling option, ask about the type of ongoing technical support available.
  • A return to in-person education. If a return to traditional classes is a priority, consider options that ease the transition. Programs available through your local public school district may provide more opportunities to build online relationships that transfer to the physical classroom.
  • Overall costs. In addition to adjusted workdays or makeshift childcare, factor in tangible costs for technology, reliable Internet, curriculum materials and other study aids.

What to consider for children with IEPs

Choosing a distance learning model is especially tricky for parents of children with individualized education plans (IEPs). During the spring coronavirus shutdown, many local schools struggled to appropriately accommodate children with IEPs. Now, with a little more planning, you can expect more customized grade-level content and better communication. Still, parents should expect to play a larger role during distance learning.

Before the school year starts, call your school to ask how it plans to address IEPs. The earlier you can modify your child’s IEP for distance learning, the better you’re able to prepare your child. Track what’s working well and any issues that arise in the first few weeks of school, and don’t be afraid to request another IEP meeting to address those issues and incorporate necessary changes early.

As you choose an option, don’t hesitate to ask for what you need. Many special education teachers suggest setting up weekly parent check-ins as you transition into online work. Your child’s IEP team can more quickly help prioritize the physical accommodations you’ll need to provide — for example, flexible seating, breaks and a quiet work space — and customize general education learning options.

Online public schools and virtual charter schools may offer more experience than traditional schools. After all, they’ve operated at a distance for years, albeit with a spotty academic track record. But your local school district may be able to offer benefits like increased communication, the comfort of a familiar face, established knowledge of your child and the chance to easily transition back to in-person classes.

How to help your kids overcome challenges of online school

No matter the choice you make, consider the nonacademic support your child needs to successfully navigate online learning.

  • Schedule your day. Kids thrive on routine, so create and follow a consistent daily schedule. Don’t forget to schedule time for breaks and outside play!
  • Create a dedicated workspace. To help your child focus, dedicate a space for online learning with supplies and headphones in reach.
  • Stay in touch with your child’s teacher. Just because learning is online doesn’t mean you can’t talk to the teacher. Meet with your child’s teacher early in the school year to clarify expectations and clear up any questions you have.
  • Help your child form relationships with peers. Take advantage of video conferencing and virtual hangouts so your child can get to know their classmates.
  • Prepare your child for tech glitches. Expect that technical issues will come up. Manage emotions and expectations by talking to your child before issues arise.
  • Use your resources. Take advantage of school counselors and other mental health resources to manage student anxiety and prepare your child for upcoming changes.
  • Model positivity. Show your child how to make the best of any school situation. If you’re confident that your child can learn online, they will be too.

Bottom line

No pandemic-induced schooling decision is perfect. But strong communication with your child will go a long way to help them feel successful and engaged in coursework. No matter what model of schooling you choose this year, you can always change and adapt your approach based on what you find is (and isn’t) working for your family.

Stay up to date on the latest coronavirus news in your region and keep in touch with your local school district for ever-expanding options and projected dates to return to in-person classes.

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