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Districts’ Virtual Programs Are on the Chopping Block as ESSER Ends

In April, the Lynchburg school district in Virginia notified families with students enrolled in its virtual academy that the full-time, online K-12 offering would conclude at the end of the 2023-24 school year.

“Unfortunately, given the current budget realities, we are unable to continue operating LVA beyond the current school year,” the school’s principal wrote in a message to families, according to local reporting.

The decision leaves 160 students without access to the virtual courses many have relied on since the pandemic started more than four years ago. The district has said those students will need to enroll in traditional brick-and-mortar schools instead, or consider attending a statewide virtual program or homeschooling either part-time or full-time.

Families of students in virtual programs in districts across the United States are facing a similar reality, as schools attempt to balance budgets as the federal pandemic relief funds often used to fund the programs expire.

Bolstered by the temporary funding source, many districts across the country opted to keep virtual programs as an option even after they reopened their buildings from pandemic closures, citing sustained interest from families and students. They were typically an option for students who met certain criteria—usually a combination of good grades and a documented need for an alternate schedule, like a job.

But in recent months, districts that maintained their virtual school options have come face to face with a tough reality: The programs cost money at a time when many are facing significant budget gaps, and they typically serve a tiny fraction of their student bodies.

So many districts—from Racine County, Wis., and Westfield, Mass., to Montgomery County, Md., and Canton, Ohio—are turning to their virtual programs to cut costs.

It’s not the first year of closures for virtual programs that have kept running since school buildings reopened.

A 2022 analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that about one-third of a sample of 100 large and urban districts had already ended their remote learning programs. Only a year prior, just six of the 100 districts said they wouldn’t have a full-time virtual option.

Education researchers say there has been little, if any, comprehensive research on students’ performance in virtual schools post-pandemic. And while there is widespread evidence that the majority of students struggled under remote learning—and that virtual charter schools lag their in-person counterparts in students’ academic achievement—there is also agreement that virtual classes benefit some students, like those with anxiety or depression or older students who need to work to support their families. Some virtual programs offer electives that aren’t available to students in their traditional schools.

At a time when districts are battling high chronic absenteeism and continuing to address learning gaps that stem from the pandemic, it’s important that district leaders are intentional about the programs and services they cut, said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy organization based at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“Unfortunately, these decisions are too often made on the basis of who’s screaming louder,” she said.

Districts should review data about students’ attendance and academic performance in these programs, and assess how much money would realistically be saved by cutting them. In many districts, Lake said, it’s possible that discontinuing virtual programs may not save much money. It’s also important to consider how participants benefit aside from purely academic metrics.

“We don’t know very much about how these programs have prospered after the pandemic, but what we do know from data is that different students need different things right now,” Lake said. “This is a timeline where students really benefit from differentiation and flexibility, so I’d be weary of removing too many options right now.”

Budget reductions always leave some unhappy

Some districts that initially proposed eliminating virtual programs have reversed course in recent weeks following pushback.

The Frederick County school district in Maryland decided June 12 to partially reverse a prior decision to end its virtual program for elementary and middle schoolers. The district decided instead to redirect about $1.3 million initially earmarked for a different purpose to retain the offering for middle school students. A high school virtual program that’s more than a decade old remains.

Superintendent Cheryl Dyson said it’s difficult anytime the district has to propose eliminating a program because, no matter what is decided, somebody will be disappointed.

“As a superintendent, it pains me to have to make any cuts to programs and people, but that’s all we have in a school district—programs and people,” she said. “Nearly 90 percent of our budget is people and salaries, and the rest are the programs and operations that we need to run this system and support our students well, so it’s troubling to say we need to cut this or propose reducing this.”

The allocation for the middle school program is one-time funding and only guarantees the program will continue for the 2024-25 school year, Dyson said.

The district is already beginning its budget process for next year, trying to build in more opportunities for the public to give feedback before the school board makes major decisions, she said.

Even in 2022, when an initial wave of virtual program closures was in progress, districts were citing financial concerns.

Some, like the Richmond, Va. district, kept their programs, but cut staff and enrollment, citing budget constraints.

The Chatham County school district in North Carolina decided in early 2023 to end its K-8 virtual school at the end of the 2022-23 school year for budget reasons. The district couldn’t afford to operate it without federal COVID relief funds, officials said at the time.

Superintendent Anthony Jackson said the program was “successful for some students” but enrollment was declining significantly, according to The Chatham News Record.

Will families leave public schools without virtual options?

Virtual programs might enroll few students, but they offer important flexibility as families in many states have the option of using public money to enroll their children in a private school or to use the money for other educational options outside of public schools, Lake said.

“This is a time when districts really have to pay attention to competition from those sectors,” she said. “That’s one thing for districts to consider as they close down those programs: Will those families just leave?”

The same is true for teachers who have valuable expertise but prefer—for whatever reason—to teach remotely and don’t want to return to a physical classroom.

Districts have long struggled to fill key teaching positions, Lake noted, and the problem has only grown since the pandemic. Flexible schedules—like those that virtual programs can more easily offer—have been cited as a key way to recruit and retain teachers.

“Flexibility is really key right now and will continue to be,” Lake said. “There’s so much possibility for doing really cool things to make school more flexible and fun and interesting for kids.”

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