Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

School Districts Implementing Virtual Learning Academies

Some districts are adamant: It’s back to school in the traditional sense. Many, though, are scrambling to accommodate families who aren’t ready to send their children back or who have learned that virtual learning works better for them.

In the past, school districts often relied on outside organizations to provide their services. Now increasingly they’re using their own teachers, and they may be looking for ones who are particularly adept to help their students – and their programs – succeed.

These districts have had some decisions to make. Among the global decisions whether children will still have ties to a home school or whether virtual learners will be enrolled a single virtual school drawn at large from the district. In many cases, the children have the opportunity to participate in some classes or activities with a neighborhood school.

Schools have also made decisions about who they can accommodate. Most districts are making the virtual option available to children as young as kindergarten. Pre-kindergarten is not commonly included, though there are some school districts that offer the option. Some schools have restricted enrollment to grades three and up.

The option may not be available for all students in the target grade band. Some school systems have a relatively stringent application process. Schools want to accommodate families who need the service – whether it’s because of a physical issue that increases susceptibility to Covid-19 or an emotional/ school climate issue that makes it difficult to thrive at school. At the same time, districts need children to be in school somewhere and thriving somewhere. They may look at how well the child participated in virtual learning during the 2020 – 2021 school year to determine whether the virtual academy is an appropriate placement for 2021 - 2022 (Key Take-Aways from a Year of Virtual Education).

Some are starting small with their virtual academies but may expand in the future. This is an audition, in a sense, for virtual learning.

School systems have to consider equity even as they look at past performance. School Districts with Ongoing Virtual Schooling Options is an article digging further into this area.

District by District Plans

The following is a look at some districts around the nation and the plans they have put in place.

The Renton School District (Washington State) has made different organizational decisions for elementary and middle/ school high school students. Neither group of remote learners will be “attached” to a neighborhood school. Elementary school students will be taught by district teachers. Their day will parallel that of students who attend in-person school. There will be live Zoom classes. Middle school and secondary school students will have self-paced courses provided by a third party organization that utilizes certificated teachers.

At Huntsville City Schools, K – 12 virtual students remain part of their zoned school and can participate in extracurricular activities. The virtual program itself, though, is district-wide, so students may have teachers who are not from their neighborhood school.

Tennessee’s Clarksville-Montgomery County School System, by contrast, has stated that students of its K-12 virtual academy would not have access to extra-curricular activities through the school; it was a “choice school” and this would not be a feature. Students would be provided devices.

Students who participate in the Baltimore County Public Schools Virtual Learning Program will be dually enrolled in a local school. They will attend classes online following a schedule that mirrors the local schools. Some courses are not available (e.g. middle school band and orchestra); the district has provided a list of these courses. Students may participate in extracurricular activities through their local school. School meals are available for pickup.

Fulton County Schools (Georgia) has launched the Fulton Academy of Virtual Excellence. The district states that their school has been designed for families seeking virtual education as a permanent alternative. Enrollment in the academy is limited to students in grades three through eleven for the 2021 – 2022 school year. Seniors will be included in 2022 – 2023. Fulton County Schools affirmed that it would provide devices to enrolled students and that a limited number of hotspots were available. (The district has considered health-related planning separately. It stated that if the Covid-19 situation merited it, virtual education would be made available more widely through local schools.)

The Future

There’s a geographic element to virtual schooling. Some states, including New York, are limiting it ( This doesn’t mean there are no online public schools in operation. Indeed some schools were in operation before Covid-19.

There may be additional opportunities in the future. Frisco ISD (Texas) has announced that they had to table their planned virtual academy due to the legislative session ending without having “given final approval to” needed legislation; the legislation, if passed, would provide full funding for virtual students and expand virtual learning. The district maintains that they’re aware online learning works better for some students and they plan to implement it in the future. The proposed Frisco ISD program is another third to twelfth grade conceptualization