After the first days of the school year, Tara Duke wondered if she made a mistake opting to keep her four children at home and enrolled in online learning.
Zoom sessions were canceled unexpectedly, and one teacher simply disappeared from a virtual classroom, leaving dozens of students to speculate about what happened before they logged off. While describing this to a reporter one morning in early August, Duke interjected: “My daughter is having a hard time logging into something. I have to help her.” She hung up.
Eight months later, Duke said she and her kids have grown comfortable with the technology and their Paulding County teachers have improved. “The teachers have it figured out. I think that they’ve learned a lot through this year too,” she said, adding, “I want to stay virtual forever.”
There are thousands of parents like her — families that tasted the flexibility that online study offers: freedom from wasted time on commutes to and from school, from classes that move too slowly or from distractions with fashion and other teen social pressures.
About 14% of middle and high school students nationally had taken at least one online course prior to COVID-19, said Jennifer Darling-Aduana, an online education expert at Georgia State University. Three-quarters of school districts across the country offered online learning.
“So it was increasing even without the pandemic,” said Darling-Aduana, an assistant professor of learning technologies and co-author of the new book, “Equity and Quality in Digital Learning: Realizing the Promise in K-12 Education.”
COVID-19 accelerated the pace, forcing many schools, especially in metro Atlanta, to improve their online game. The largest Atlanta area school districts will be opening permanent, full-time virtual schools this fall, in an experiment that could either define the future of education or create a new niche way of teaching.
The students who will attend them constitute a tiny fraction of overall enrollment, typically less than 1% — for now.
“I think that it will grow,” said Gyimah Whitaker, the deputy chief academic officer for Fulton County Schools. Families have said they want “anywhere, any time school,” she said. “I think virtual is here to stay.”
Behind the screens
As it’s been throughout the pandemic in Georgia, each district has its own approach.
Some plan to offer the online programs to students as young as kindergartners while others are limiting participation to third- to 12th-graders.
There will be virtual schools that are standalone operations, while others will be an online extension of an established district school.
For instance, Atlanta’s virtual academy is a standalone school with its own name, staff and student body, as are virtual programs in Fulton and Paulding counties.
But in Henry, Clayton and Gwinnett, the remote learning programs are attached to physical schools. For instance, in Gwinnett, students who live near Snellville Middle will enroll online through that school and be counted as students there.
Cobb splits its system. Elementary schools in the north metro community are tied to their physical schools, while its secondary schools are not.
Cobb calls the online elementary schools a “geographic cluster model.” The benefit is that it builds strong bonds between online students and the home school, said John Floresta, Cobb’s chief of strategy and accountability.
“At the elementary age, that relationship between the teacher and the kid really, really matters,” he said.
In most cases, the virtual programs will be open to any student who prefers learning remotely. But in some districts, such as Fayette and Cherokee, students must demonstrate an ability to self-pace on school work to be accepted.
Several districts say they will have to hire more teachers if they cannot find enough qualified internal candidates. All of those interviewed said they will have separate, dedicated staff attending to their online students. Schools found during the pandemic that it was too difficult for teachers to handle students both in-person and online.
Many of Georgia’s larger school districts, such as Gwinnett, Cobb, Henry and Atlanta have had online schools for many years. Mostly those were for special cases — for students who wanted to take an advanced class not offered in their school or make up a failed class.
Charter schools were among the pioneers of the full-time model. The state’s largest, Georgia Cyber Academy, opened for students from kindergarten through middle school in 2007 and soon expanded to include high school students. Last school year, about 9,200 attended there and another 4,600 attended a similar charter school called Georgia Connections Academy, in fifth grade through high school.
This fall, about 7,000 or so students will attend new full-time online schools in the five large Atlanta-area school districts queried by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
They are reacting to new interest from parents like Michelle Smith, who knew her daughter, Nichelle, was a fast learner but didn’t realize how bored she had been in the classroom. There was also the stress of the commutes between school and her extracurricular activities.
The new pace is more relaxed. On a recent day, Nichelle logged in for class, took a break for a dental appointment, and skateboarded during lunch.
Nichelle, 11, is teaching herself Japanese between classes when she’s not reading books. She plays the violin, dances and sings, and she makes art with resin in a new space her parents created for her in the basement.
“The virtual schooling just works,” Smith said. The self-described “‘60s baby” said that for her school had always meant a classroom. She never would have enrolled her daughter in something like the Fulton Academy of Virtual Excellence if the pandemic had not opened her mind to the possibilities. “I would never have looked at it until it hit me in the face,” she said.
Duke, from Paulding, said she never would have considered virtual school for her four kids if not for COVID-19. She said they are excelling academically and she’s making the younger two stay online, while her older two chose it.
The family socializes at church and by keeping all of them home, Duke, who used to homeschool them, said she doesn’t have to worry they will fall in with the “wrong crowd” as she did as a kid.
The enthusiasm is not universal. At Clayton County Schools, which spent most of the year all-virtual even as other districts began offering in-person instruction, only about 900 of the district’s 55,000 students signed up for virtual education next year, Superintendent Morcease Beasley said.
“I thought a lot more wanted a virtual option,” he said. “They still have time to change their minds.”
Mapillar Dahn, a Clayton County parent, is leaning toward sending her youngest daughter back to school in-person.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Her daughter, Hajar Tyler, 11, has been miserable learning from home. The sixth-grader struggled with focus and staying on task until she was moved to an online classroom with fewer students in the second half of the school year.
“She is so ready to be out of here,” Dahn said.
Weighing the options
Online school has its drawbacks. As a standalone entity, for instance, Fulton’s new online school with 725 students will have no sports teams, although there will be space at two new schools opening in the north and south parts of the county where the online students can meet for their own extracurricular activities. The district has been polling parents to gauge interest in particular activities.
There appears to be little consensus around some key questions, such as age-appropriateness.
For instance, Fulton’s academy is enrolling children as young as third grade. Meanwhile, Paulding County’s Virtual Academy starts in kindergarten, but Cherokee County’s i-Grad Virtual Academy starts in ninth grade.
Some have expressed concern that kindergarten and Pre-K may be too young to start online learning. They insist socialization is crucial to that age and worry that children won’t develop those skills if they are not in the same room.
Decatur will open a permanent online school with 28 students enrolled, and three teachers guaranteed for the whole school year — two for the elementary school level and one for the secondary level. But one of the teaching slots in elementary school — the one for K-2 — may be eliminated after spring of 2022.
“I’m not sure that virtual for K-2 is developmentally appropriate, so we’re trying to pilot it due to COVID but we’ll see where that goes,” said Kristy Beam, Decatur’s executive director of curriculum and instruction.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
But Aleigha Henderson-Rosser, executive director of instructional technology for Atlanta Public Schools, said online teachers are trained for all grade levels down to kindergarten. The school includes online social clubs, cyber movie nights and “tea time” featuring principals who read to children.
“Our kids already socialize on technology outside of school,” she said. “We didn’t invent that part. We are just harnessing what that looks like.”
An imperfect solution
Although both of Georgia’s virtual charter schools — Georgia Cyber Academy and Georgia Connections Academy — technically serve the whole state, their attendance is clustered in metro Atlanta, according to the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts. Online schooling has been less popular in parts of the state with poor internet connectivity.
It is one reason rural school districts appear less likely to embrace the virtual model in the near term.
In Vidalia, home of the world-famous sweet onion, online enrollment has fallen to about 12%, down from a high of 25% or 30% at the beginning of the school year as parents abandoned virtual school and returned their children to real classrooms, Superintendent Garrett Wilcox said.
“We’re not totally against it,” he said. But he doubts online school will work below middle school, and he thinks there are inherent drawbacks when teachers are not in the same place as their students.
“You can’t build those same relationships virtually,” he said. Also, some students may not graduate on time because they went off the rails without the “structure” that comes with a teacher hovering nearby.
“The freedom that comes along with not having a schedule wasn’t good for everybody,” he said.
The Georgia Department of Education is not tracking how many of the state’s 180 school districts are planning to open online schools, so it is unclear how widespread this sentiment is.
Robert Costley, a former school superintendent in Butts County south of Atlanta, said many of the superintendents he talks with want to keep a toe in the online world but worry that younger kids won’t learn to read if they attend online.
Interest will grow as broadband access expands, predicted Costley, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders.
“All of these systems are in the birth, toddler stages of the new normal,” he said.
Metro Atlanta online learning options
NOTE: Cobb enrollment number for secondary students. Elementary enrollment not provided. DeKalb enrollment and staffing not provided. Gwinnett staffing not provided.
Source: School district responses to AJC questions