This week's update focuses on a deep dive into school district and state remote learning policies. It was compiled by CRPE Resident Policy Fellow Christine Pitts, Research Assistant Cara Pangelinan, and Principal Bree Dusseault.
Remote Learning Options This Fall and Beyond
Between July and September, the number of districts in our nationwide review of 100 large and urban school systems offering remote learning more than doubled, from 41 to 94.
Some states have caught up to these districts’ actions, allowing them to offer remote learning this school year, but other states still face pressure from districts and families to authorize more remote learning options.
In late August, Tennessee Commissioner Penny Schwinn announced she would grant seven-day waivers to districts who submitted plans to shift specific schools to remote learning in response to COVID outbreaks. Schwinn has since approved 8 district plans in response to a groundswell of advocates, including parents and local leaders, who continued to ask for virtual learning options this fall.
In New Jersey, the Bridgewater-Raritan board of education is asking state leaders to reconsider the ban on virtual learning options. The Board of Education passed a resolution that is heading to the governor’s office, the Department of Education, and the New Jersey School Board Association.
In Texas, the legislature recently approved a bill that would allow state funding to support district remote learning programs. This came after large school districts, such as Austin and Dallas, launched remote learning programs with the intent to use American Rescue Plan funds to cover operating costs.
Still, many remote learning programs are struggling to accommodate demand, are not accessible to all students, or don’t provide the support services students would normally receive in school.
Local demand for virtual learning options increases
While many districts anticipated the need to continue offering virtual options and started planning for them over the summer, some remote programs only rolled out as recently as this month.
San Antonio Independent School District, for example, just announced a virtual program for up to 700 students with medical challenges, their siblings, and students who have undergone trauma during COVID-19.
Districts that created or expanded online learning options earlier in the year saw a greater-than-expected rush of demand.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for example, had a little over 600 students enrolled in elementary and high school virtual learning options as of mid-August. Within the following weeks, enrollment nearly quadrupled to over 2,300 elementary, middle, and high schoolers with another 183 students on the waitlist.
Gwinnett County in Atlanta saw a similar surge, with enrollment actually declining from June (3,400 students enrolled) to July (3,300 students) and then escalating to 5,300 students in August.
Of the 100 districts in our review, at least 29 have set enrollment caps or introduced waitlists to register for virtual options. Some districts were not prepared for the volume of students registering for these programs.
Sacramento City Unified only had enough teachers for a quarter of their registered virtual learners a week into the school year.
The Hawaii Department of Education is looking to hire out-of-state teachers to satisfy the increased demand for remote learning.
Remote learning programs vary widely
While most districts we track are offering remote learning programs staffed by district teachers, some are forming partnerships with external programs offered by the state or independent organizations.
Indianapolis Public Schools is contracting with Paramount Schools of Excellence (K-8) and Phalen Leadership Academies (K-12) to operate online schools that offer small group instruction, tutoring services, SEL resources for students with disabilities and English language learners, enrichment activities, and elective options. District leaders have said they want the schools to develop online learning programs that improve upon the low quality and lack of student engagement that plague many virtual charter schools.
However, most of these online learning arrangements are all-or-nothing. Parents can either choose to enroll their children as alternatives to in-person learning, or keep them in brick-and-mortar schools. Only a fraction of districts in our review (5 of 100) are using their virtual school or a similar program to support learning for students who are temporarily taken out of class due to school closures or quarantines.
Arizona State University Prep Digital announced a partnership with an Ohio charter school that will leverage the online school to support student learning throughout quarantine or isolation. ASU plans to implement similar partnerships with other schools around the country. Still, these types of external partnerships remain rare.
Since some districts offer multiple remote learning options, our review covers a total of 105 different remote learning programs. Among the remote programs we reviewed, the most common type of intervention or support for students was the opportunity to check in with teachers.
60 of 105 remote programs committed to offering teacher check-ins.
53 of 105 remote programs communicate plans to serve both students with disabilities and English language learners.
45 of 105 remote programs mentioned academic interventions, such as tutoring, extended learning services, or small-group instruction.
31 of 105 remote programs offered both enrichment and elective opportunities.
25 of 105 remote programs describe how they will serve students with disabilities, but not English language learners.
Still, some districts put restrictions on which students with disabilities can participate in these programs, with these students usually assessed on a case-by-case basis.
States are in a critical position to define the role of remote learning post-COVID
While eight states have a policy or regulation that restricts at least some aspect of remote learning in 2021-22, including Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas.
A handful of other states are providing important guidance around instructional time, standards, and the future of virtual learning options.
Arizona legislation allows schools to use remote learning, mastery-based education, and night and weekend classes to provide students alternatives to the traditional five-day week or 180-day year.
Colorado, a long-time leader in online learning, established a detailed rubric for approving online learning programs that operate across district lines, covering critical issues like governance, curriculum quality, and transparency.
Connecticut’s 2021 remote learning legislation requires the state to set standards for remote learning by January 2022. Using these standards, local education agencies can authorize remote learning programs for high school students in high school starting next year.
The Illinois State Board of Education outlined guidance on the characteristics of a remote learning option during the 2021-22 school year, including details about instructional time and enrollment. The guidance specifies that the district should strive to provide all students learning remotely with a minimum of 2.5 hours of synchronous instruction with teachers and other students.
South Dakota guidance explains that schools opting to provide long-term virtual options must commit to quality instruction, state-aligned standards, and certified, well-trained staff.
The South Carolina State Board of Education has approved 51 district-operated virtual programs based on a set of regulations and guidelines based on pre-existing charter regulations to ensure teachers are certified, schools provide access to live instruction, and students actively participate in online classes.
States and districts are contending with dueling challenges, 1) students need immediate access to quality remote options while in quarantine or isolation and 2) we can catalyze on this moment to establish long-term virtual learning programs that expand on lessons learned during COVID. We are observing a short window this fall in which states and districts can work together to define these paths for their students and families.