Several school systems across the country have recently announced the next school year will not include a key feature of education during the pandemic — the district-led option for remote or hybrid learning.
In removing those options, districts are hoping for a more typical school year with full-time, in-person classes and fewer logistical disruptions. But while many federal, state and local education experts say in-person learning is better for students’ academic attainment and social and emotional wellbeing, many also acknowledge the benefits of remote learning for certain students, as well as the concerns from some families — particularly families of color — about the safety of in-person learning while the public health crisis continues.
To help address what could be a transition year as districts phase out their locally-created remote school options, states such as Texas, Colorado and Connecticut are issuing or considering policies to address the funding, equity and academic considerations for districts as they determine learning choices for the 2021-22 school year.
For example, the Colorado Department of Education, in guidance issued April 15, said districts may continue to offer remote or hybrid learning formats next school year in response to safety concerns related to the pandemic, but that the 2021-22 school year would likely be the last time CDE would allow these types of flexibilities. The state agency is requiring districts that offer a remote learning option to submit assurances as to the quality, scheduling and data reporting of instruction.
Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said district leaders should send parents a clear message that schools are ready to safely welcome all students back full-time for five days of full-day classes this fall. Hybrid options where students attend school in-person part of the week or part of the day should be discarded, as well as formats where classroom teachers simultaneously instruct some students face-to-face and others remotely, he said.
“It’s not working in a lot of places,” Petrilli said of simultaneous teaching. “Teachers hate it. Kids hate it.”
Virtual likely to continue, but with restrictions
Petrilli also said districts should be able to recommend a virtual option, such as a state-led virtual school or other programming, for those students unwilling or unable to return to campus next school year and beyond.
Still, the priority should be on full in-person learning and supports, he said.
“I think for the cause of equity, I've really got to be worried about the fact that we have good reason to believe that remote learning is not working well for a lot of kids, and that includes kids who are poor and kids who are kids of color and low-achieving kids,” Petrilli said.
In February, only 50% of schools offered full-time, in-person learning for all students, according to data about 4th-graders from the Institute of Education Sciences. Black, Hispanic and Asian students were less likely to enroll in in-person learning compared to White students, according to the same data collection.
Here are examples of how several states are addressing remote learning options for next school year:
Florida: Several Florida school districts have already announced, starting next year, they will no longer offer the virtual learning format populated with remote classes and assignments from teachers in their assigned district school campuses, according to the Orlando Sentinel. However, students would still have the option to enroll in Florida Virtual School.
Connecticut: The state Department of Education has told superintendents it will not require districts to offer a remote learning option, according to interim guidance dated April 27.
“At this time, [the Connecticut Department of Public Health] and CSDE do not anticipate the need to mandate, due to public health necessity, that all school districts provide an option for students and their families to opt-in to a voluntary remote option after this school year,” the interim guidance said.
According to the interim guidance, the state is also interested in promoting “dynamic educational options” that could be offered online, including learning acceleration courses and high-level or specialized classes.
Texas: The Texas Legislature is considering different House and Senate bills that would allow or require districts to continue to offer remote learning choices. The House proposal has remote learner admission criteria and would limit that choice to students in 3rd grade and higher, said Curtis Culwell, executive director of the Texas School Alliance, which represents 43 districts that include 40% of the state’s student population.
TSA supports the option for locally-led virtual schooling but wants to preserve districts’ per-pupil revenue and ensure fairness among smaller and larger sized districts, which may have different capabilities to offer separate remote programs.
TSA also says the remote learning choice should be limited to students residing in that district’s jurisdiction, and that those virtual students should still receive special education services and other supports from their local school system. “We feel like just because the pandemic is winding down, parents have discovered this as an option, and if they don’t get it from their local district, they’ll get it from a charter school or other option,” Culwell said.