Even as most students return to classes, online learning is here to stay

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For some, virtual learning will be here to stay.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Kansas City-area schools scrambled to move classes online. Ultimately, every public district in the area ended up with some sort of virtual learning program, a few of which remained in place into April 2021.

While the pandemic seems to have an end in sight, virtual learning does not. Many school districts already offered virtual academies that served a handful of students, but with virtual learning working better for some students and parents, the programs are expanding. According to advocacy group National School Choice Week, online schools are seeing an enrollment increase between forty and sixty-four percent.

Kansas allows districts to set up separate virtual districts, but it’s a thorny issue for some districts. In March, Shawnee Mission decided against offering remote learning next fall, meaning students will have to attend school in-person or transfer elsewhere, upsetting some parents. Asked by our news partner Fox 4 about their plans, Blue Valley and Olathe school districts both said they are still working through possibilities.

In Liberty Public School District, virtual learning has been popular with students and parents who have changed their schedules during the pandemic, says Dr. Jeanette Westfall, assistant superintendent. “We’ve had some families that have been on the move. The parents just have to be in different places in the country, and they were able to go with them and still go to school here.”

In Liberty, there are still more than two thousand virtual students enrolled this April. Next year, they expect it to be between three and four hundred, about five percent of the district’s total.

Westfall shares a comment from a student on the subject: “I have to visit my dad who lives far away, so doing online school lets me spend more time with him during the school year instead of just over breaks.”

But while the flexibility of taking classes from anywhere is prized, maintaining a sense of structure is key, Westfall says. The district was worried that students who broke completely free from the school’s schedule would struggle to transition back to in-person learning if they wanted to do so, so the district decided to have virtual school follow a firm schedule. Along with having a regular class schedule, students can also participate in sports and fine arts in person. It’s not without pitfalls.

“I found it really hard to talk to my teachers when I needed help because I felt like I was bothering them when I emailed them, and it was just too awkward,” says a Liberty virtual student we spoke to. “I also never talked to my classmates, especially not in breakout rooms. It got lonely after a while.”

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