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Guide to online public school

How this type of remote learning works — plus tips to help your child excel outside the traditional classroom.

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Young girl on a Zoom video call with classmates.

Many public school districts across the country are still unsure how much time they’ll need to dedicate to distance learning. To maintain favorable attendance rates for students and teachers while minimizing the risk of coronavirus outbreaks, many school districts are curating educational resources for continued remote learning.

Some public school districts have already decided to go fully remote for the first few weeks of school. Others have opted to introduce a hybrid model, a mix of both in-person and remote learning, at least through the end of 2020. What’s problematic about this is that many teachers are still unsure how to effectively engage and teach their students remotely and need specialized training.

Many of these options are still too new for parents whose bottom line is their kids’ academic success and safety during the school day. As a result, many parents are considering enrolling their children into experienced and accredited online public schools while waiting for traditional brick-and-mortar schools to figure out effective hybrid models.

As both school districts and parents search for answers on the best way to approach K-12 education amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we’re here to help you understand exactly how online public school works.

How do online public schools work and are they accredited?

Online public schools are an extension of public education and typically administered by your local public school district, a public charter school or a state-funded education agency. Most online public schools are accredited nationally or regionally, though not all are — it varies by school and state.

Students typically have the choice of self-guided studies, live lessons taught by a teacher on a set schedule or a mix of both — it all depends on the school your child attends. Regardless, your child will have access to a dedicated teacher — or team of teachers for higher grade levels — they can lean on for support.

Are students required to complete standardized tests?

Online public schools that fall within the jurisdiction of the local public school district in which the students reside are held to the same standardized testing requirements as their in-person counterparts.

Online K-12 schools outside the school district are also typically required to satisfy standardized testing requirements according to their grade level and state and local school district mandates.

What’s the difference between virtual programs through my school district and public online K-12 schools?

The biggest difference between virtual programs through your school district and those outside your district is accreditation. All virtual programs through your local school district are accredited, similar to your traditional brick-and-mortar public school. However, public online K-12 schools outside your district might not be accredited — it varies by program and state.

Virtual programs through your school districtPublic online K-12 schools outside your district
Access to technologyVaries — some school districts provide access to a computer and Internet, others rely on parents to provide thisVaries — some programs provide access to a computer and Internet, others rely on parents to provide this
How lessons are taughtVaries — some are self-guided, others provide live lessons and some offer a mix of bothVaries — some are self-guided, others provide live lessons and some offer a mix of both
State-certified teachers requiredYesYes
Standardized testing requiredYesYes
Accredited programYesVaries — most should have some type of accreditation, but not all do
CostFreeFree

Compare K–12 online schools

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
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Compare up to 4 providers

9 factors to consider when comparing online public school programs

If you’re thinking of enrolling your child in an online public school program, here are a few factors to compare to help you decide if it’s the right option for you:

  • Eligibility requirements. Make sure the online public school option is available where you live — and that your child qualifies for enrollment.
  • Learning styles and techniques. Ask whether the program consists of self-guided or live lessons, and what types of techniques are used. This might include videos, podcasts, interactive slides and more.
  • Course offerings. Make sure the program teaches the same core subjects as public schools, including English language arts (ELA), mathematics, science and history. Look into the varying course levels offered as well, such as comprehensive, honors, Advanced Placement (AP), remediation and credit recovery.
  • Electives and career pathway programs offered. Depending on your child’s interests and career plans, you’ll want to make sure the electives and career pathway programs offered fit their future goals.
  • Special education and support resources available. Ask about what type of resources are available to students, including individualized education programs (IEPs), tutoring, academic counseling and mental health services.
  • Accreditation. Check to see what type of accreditation the school has. Research accredited US colleges and universities to determine whether they recognize the diplomas and certificates earned.
  • Transfer credits. Inquire whether the courses, credits and grade-level placements provide reciprocity and legitimacy between other public schools in and outside your state.
  • Cost. Most online public schools are free, though you might need to pay for technology or curriculum materials.
  • Attendance monitoring. Check to see if you’re responsible for monitoring your child’s attendance, or whether it’s up to the school.

Don’t forget to ask about the online curriculum

How your child’s curriculum is designed and implemented is critical to the success of both schools and students.

When you’re considering an online public school for your child, ask about their dedication to infusing relevancy to the development of the curricula they teach and how they adapt teaching styles to fit a variety of learners.

Good online curriculum should offer options and flexibility in the following areas:

  • Variety of media that kids are familiar with. Think video, podcasts, apps, interactive slides, breakout rooms and the like.
  • Mix of live and self-paced options. Lessons that are offered both live and also with self-paced options give students the best of both worlds.
  • Age-appropriate lessons and activities. Activities should have the appropriate rigor level for your child’s age group and grade level.
  • Assessments that are designed to help learners improve over time. Make sure the school is dedicated to helping your child grow beyond their current abilities.

What is the parent’s role in online public school?

When it comes to parents’ involvement in online public school programs, they’re typically assigned the role of learning coach. Learning coaches don’t actively teach the K-12 curriculum, nor are they expected to.

Like in-person schooling, they collaborate with teachers online to help support and record regular daily attendance, monitor benchmarks through biweekly or quarterly assessments and review schoolwork for accuracy — particularly for younger learners in kindergarten through fifth grade. Typically, older children require fewer interventions, but will need to have their time structured to help them manage their courses and assignments.

I work full time outside the home and can’t stay home with my kids. What are my other options?

If you’re unable to fill the role of learning coach, you can select another trusted adult — like a family member or friend — to help. In many cases, students have more than one learning coach, depending on who is home with them or where they’re physically located.

My school district isn’t offering virtual learning. How can I find an alternative public online school?
All states now offer virtual learning options, though they’re not all free. Available options vary by state and include tuition-free online public schools or tuition-based online private schools.

For more information about the options in your state, visit the K12 website, scroll to the bottom of the page and click Schools by State to find an online school where you live.

6 benefits to online classes for kids

Some advantages of attending school online include:

  • Safe learning environment. The biggest advantage to online learning right now is there’s less risk of your child contracting COVID-19 since they won’t be attending class in person each day.
  • Personalized curriculum available. Online public schools outside your child’s school district come with personalized lessons designed to fit your child’s strengths and needs.
  • Schedules can be personalized. Online public schools outside your school district allow parents and students to create a schedule that’s conducive to personal, family and academic needs.
  • Multiple learning options available. Content is provided through various tools and lessons to engage diverse learners — including videos, articles, podcasts, learning management systems and more.
  • Fewer peer distractions and obstacles to learning. Kids who are prone to peer pressure or other distractions from classmates can avoid them by learning from home.
  • Parents have the opportunity to be more informed about their children’s learning. Parents — especially those who work from home — will have a unique opportunity to sit in on lessons and more closely monitor their child’s education.

6 drawbacks to watch out for with online schooling

Some drawbacks of online classes for some students may include:

  • Feelings of isolation. Between self-guided lessons and not seeing their friends at school each day, it’s easy for your child to feel isolated from their peers.
  • Easier to procrastinate with assignments. If your child is attending a self-guided program and doesn’t have a strong work ethic, it will be easier for them to push off assignments when they’re not tied to a set schedule.
  • Time-management skills required. Students who don’t know how to manage their time may have difficulty getting all of their lessons done each day, which could cause them to fall behind in learning.
  • Lack of supervision may cause distractions. Children who are home alone during the day may dedicate more time to fun and games rather than schoolwork.
  • Workspaces that aren’t conducive to learning. Students who don’t have a quiet space at home may have difficulty concentrating on assignments.
  • Access to Internet and technology required. Your child will need steady access to a laptop or other digital device and the Internet to complete lessons each day.

What if I can’t afford to provide a laptop and Internet access for my child?

Many public school districts have started providing all students with school-issued laptops or tablets, along with affordable or free WiFi. And even if yours doesn’t, they might have a special program that provides access to appropriate technology to eligible low-income students.

If you’re still struggling to get your child access to a digital device and Internet, visit your state’s department of education website. There might be tech programs available that even your public school district isn’t aware of.

Another option is to reach out to local nonprofits and charities in your area and explain your situation. They may be willing to donate a used laptop or digital device to your child, along with vouchers for free Internet.

How will my kids socialize if they go to school full time online?

Most online public schools offer opportunities for students to engage with their peers outside the traditional classroom environment. This might include online extracurricular clubs and virtual activities. Some schools also host in-person events for students and parents to get to know each other, including school dances, field trips, book clubs and more.

For example, Virginia Virtual Academy organizes events to get both students and teachers together several times during the school year. These gatherings happen both online and in person, and range from everything to virtual informational nights and holiday celebrations to in-person standardized testing and student outings.

Depending on the online school your child attends, they might be able to participate in sports through your local public school district. If that’s not an option, you can always sign them up for a sport or other activities through your local YMCA, church or another private organization.

Are online public school classes as good as in-person classes?

Academic success will always vary by student, their access to support and their family circumstances. Studies find that underprepared students who struggle to learn in person also have trouble attending class online. Similar studies examining K-12 education settings show that in-person courses are, on average, more effective than online courses for most students.

Therefore, students most likely to succeed in the online environment have already formed good study habits and are academically inclined.

3 ways to help your kids excel at online classes

Now that more and more children will be learning remotely in some way, shape or form this school year, the time is ripe for helping them with important self-management skills.

Here are three schedules to create to help them excel at remote learning:

  • Daily schedule. This includes breaking up the day to include time for your child’s morning routine, academics, chores, creative projects, community service and more. You can download a template developed by education expert Dr. Neil Gupta to help you get started.
  • Learning schedule. On top of having a daily schedule, educator Kiffany Lychock recommends creating a home learning schedule as well. This breaks up your child’s day in 15-minute increments by subject or lesson.
  • Weekly schedule. To help you work in much-needed social time, you can also create a weekly schedule that will help your child balance both their online schoolwork with personal and social activities. Algonquin College has quite a few tools and weekly schedule templates on its website to help.

Bottom line

Parents have critical decisions to make in a short amount of time — and it’s likely your children will participate in some form of distance learning throughout the 2020–21 school year. Although the initial days or even weeks of online education can leave us all feeling tired, overwhelmed and less than productive, just take it one day at a time. And remember: It will get easier.

You can take a deeper dive into all of your options with our guide to online school for kids during COVID-19.

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