Some parents are seeking out permanent virtual school for the fall

By Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN Business

    (CNN) -- Many parents and children struggled with remote learning throughout the pandemic. Samantha Lucero had a very different experience with one of her kids.

"When the pandemic first hit, online school was a bit messy for everyone," Lucero, a stay-at-home mother from Colorado Springs, told CNN Business. "But my older daughter did so well with it. She started participating more with teachers and became more comfortable than when she was in a school setting. Her grades were amazing."

Her daughter, 13, is on the autism spectrum and diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, conditions that often make it harder for children to communicate, socialize and adapt to environmental changes, such as distracting noises in the classroom. When the Colorado Springs School District announced plansearlier this yearto launch a permanent online school option, called the Spark Online Academy, starting in August, Lucero spoke to her daughter about taking that alternative route and then signed her up for it. "She was very excited," said Lucero.

After more than a year of pandemic living, the frustrations and downsides of online learning are well-known to countless households. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found25% of parents whose children received virtual instruction or combined instruction reported worsened mental or emotional health in their children, compared to 16% of parents whose children received in-person instruction. They were also more likely to say their children were less physically active, spent less time outside and spent less time with friends. In addition, virtual instruction contributed to emotional distress for parents.

But as many school districts forgo virtual learning options and bring students back to classrooms this fall, in line with recent CDC guidance to make it a priority, some parents like Lucero are seeking out remote-only options from new and existing schools.

The decision to pull students from traditional classrooms into digital ones varies among families, with factors ranging from flexibility and ongoing concerns about Covid-19 tobetter supporting children with different learning needswho thrived during home learning.At the same time, continuingremote learning is a privilege that typically requires one or more parents who stay at home or work remotely. It also requires that householdshave broadband and appropriate devices, though some programs loan resources such as a tablet or a computer to students.

For those families interested in online school, the options appear to be growing and gaining popularity.A spokespersonforanother virtual public school option called Stride K12, which works with school districts in 30 states and Washington DC, said the percentage of currently enrolled families who have indicated they are returning in the fall is at a multi-year high. Last year, it added hundreds of teachers, scaled up its curriculum to serve more students and stocked up on computers.

In Lucero's home state, applications for online multi-district certification -- meaning virtual schools thatcan enroll students in counties across Colorado -- have jumped from one or two in a typical year to six so far this year, according to Jeremy Meyer, director of communications for the Colorado Department of Education.

Julie Johnson, principal of the Spark Online Academy, said the virtual school was created because many families in the Colorado Springs School District reported similar success with online classes during the pandemic.

"We heard from parents who were frustrated with the negative narrative around online learning because that hadn't been their experience," she said. "Those generalizations dismiss what has worked for so many families --- and that population does matter."


The virtual classroom lives on


The Spark Online Academy currently has 200 students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade and is "growing like crazy," according to Johnson, who saidthe school is open to students across Colorado.

Enrollment is limited to 25 students for each grade level and one teacher. "A common misconception about online learning is that you can squeeze a whole bunch of kids into a virtual classroom, but that's not good for anyone," she said.

While some instruction will be in front of a screen, the school will also provide hands-on materials for projects or independent practice. Classes may meet periodically in person for optional activities, such as organized sports, cooking lessons or a field trip to the area's neighboring Pikes Peak mountain. It'll also set up studio spaces where students can meet with teachers in person or conduct science projects, participate in robotics or have a quiet place to learn outside of the home.

They're drawing on lessons from a year-plus of virtual learning during the pandemic. "The teachers that I saw experiencing the highest levels of stress and exhaustion were trying to replicate a traditional model in a virtual environment," she said.

"We're thinking of it like a school without walls," Johnson added. "We didn't want to purchase canned curricular products where kids are marching through modules. We learned this past year that you absolutely have to start with relationship building with students by focusing on that social and emotional aspect to make sure that kids feel like they are connected and belong to a community."

Bill Kottenstette, director of Colorado's School of Choice office, the state's education department that provides information on public school choice options, said the pandemic pushed schools and districts to expand their capacity for online learning and has prompted some to "create formal online schools moving forward."

"As students and parents become more familiar with virtual learning and how students can be successful in a virtual environment -- and as the 'system' gets better at providing more effective virtual learning options -- there will be more students from brick-and-mortar environments choosing a virtual option," he said.


Not for everyone


Some parents who opted to enroll their children in pre-existing online learning services during the pandemic, such as The Connections Academy, have decided to keep them there. The Connections Academy, which has been in business for 20 years, works with 40 public schools in more than 29 states, providing students with the curriculum, tech support and trained teachers. Students take online classes with peers through their school districts but can also attend in-person activities, ranging from meet-and-greet kickoff parties, field trips and clubs to prom and graduation ceremonies.

Tracy Colmenero, who lives in a rural Texas town, registered her two sons for Connections Academy's gifted program for the 2020-2021 school year when their local school struggled to get set up with virtual learning. It allowed her 11-year-old son Zachary to pursue professional acting as a passion. "I don't know how we would have done all of the auditions and filming at the same time as an in-person school," said Colmenero, noting he's been able to do lessons in the car or listen to recordings later in the day.

Her other son, Anthony, 9, overcame a fear of public speaking by presenting to his class more often behind a computer and improved typing skills and test taking without the stress of the classroom. "We decided to continue with the school this fall, especially with all of the activities they're doing," Colmenero said. "If they want to go back to the local school, they can but they've been really happy with it so far."

Meanwhile, according to Johnson, about 20% of parents who have enrolled their children in Spark Online Academy said they "aren't ready to have their kids go back yet because of lingering concerns with the virus."

Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, worries some parents may "disregard what their child truly needs out of fear" of future variants. But she also echoes parents and online educators who say what works for one child may not work for another.

"I think the majority of kids will likely benefit from in person learning but there are certainly kids who thrive at home and do better in the remote environment," Chaudhary said. "It goes to show that the public health recommendations are really never a one-size-fits-all; they're meant to cater to the majority but that doesn't mean it will suit with every kid."

In Lucero's case, there's not even a one-size-fits-all approachfor her two kids. While her older daughter will attend virtual classes this fall, her 11-year-old daughter -- who struggled with the lack of social interaction during the pandemic -- will resume classes at her local traditional school.

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