Metcalfe: Digital Learning Is Here to Stay. Now, Give Non-Traditional Online Schools the Funding to Meet Their Students’ Needs

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If we have learned one thing from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that a one-size-fits-all approach to education doesn’t cut it. While many students struggled with the transition from in-person learning to emergency remote instruction, others have thrived using some of the new and innovative models implemented during the pandemic. As education continues to evolve and more families opt for alternative learning options, policymakers must ensure standards for funding, measuring and reporting of online schools, just as there are for traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

With the advances in technology and new insights, educators have the capability to deliver learning in the way that works best to meet the individual needs of all students. It’s clear some are not ready or interested in returning to the classroom, yet they need to be in the education system — whether in person, fully online or a combination. Digital learning, smaller class sizes and the integration of parents in their child’s education allows for increased personalization. However, online schools must have the ability to implement these personalized efforts so they can recruit qualified teachers and invest in state-of-the-art technology.

Moving forward, it is critical that state and federal legislators prioritize digital education and the role it can play in keeping and recapturing students in the education system. For these models to thrive, and thus for students to succeed, lawmakers must ensure that virtual schools are funded at the same level as traditional brick-and-mortar schools. To encourage the creation of new virtual or hybrid schools in areas that lack access to flexible educational opportunities, legislators should also consider one-time startup funding to help launch new programs.

Recent allocations from state and federal sources can help. The American Rescue Plan Elementary Secondary School Relief Fund, enacted in March, provides nearly $122 billion to state education agencies and local school districts with a clear intent to address learning loss caused by school closures. Beyond funding summer programs and simply adding more hours of schooling, these funds allow schools to create more opportunities to engage students as well as help them recover from the pandemic. Another example is the Rethink K12 Education Models Grants, which provide $180 million in new funding specifically to incentivize state education agencies to explore new and innovative ways to teach students, especially those who struggled over the last two school years.

In the past, awarding such funding and grants to non-public schools has been contentious, but now more than ever, these funds can help states adapt their education systems for the next generation. Non-traditional schools also need greater flexibility in how the funding they receive can be spent, so educators can fund the programs that best support their schools and families. Moving forward, these schools will also need clarity in how to consistently report attendance, student performance and other important metrics. The day-to-day schedule of students in hybrid or online learning differs from that of students participating in in-person learning; so should school accountability measures.

For example, to track attendance at Valor Preparatory Academy Arizona, a public hybrid charter school in Goodyear, Arizona, parents log on to their children’s portals and record the number of minutes spent in lessons or on assignments. Without concrete guidelines or policies set by state and local governments, schools can select the processes that best work for their families. These metrics should include outcomes- or competency-based measurements that focus on student proficiency and overall academic success. As the school environment continues to evolve, legislators should continue to work with education leaders to provide clear guidance and standards. Challenges related to accountability measures are school agnostic; all schools, from traditional brick-and-mortar public schools and charter schools to hybrid and fully online schools, face the massive undertaking of measuring student success and reporting attendance, among other measures. The federal and state governments have placed a greater emphasis on providing clarity to traditional schools. Now, it’s time to provide that same clarity to schools operating online.

While much attention over the past year has understandably been on the many issues students have faced during the pandemic, it is important to recognize the students who are thriving and make sure policies adapt so those students continue to have what they need to be successful.

Non-traditional learning is here to stay. To support the needs of families and teachers who elect to participate in online or virtual learning, it is on education leaders and government officials alike to oversee the transition into the next era of education. Prioritizing funding and developing policies with non-traditional school leaders that support flexible learning are several of many advancements needed.

Yovhane Metcalfe, Ph.D., is chief academic officer for StrongMind, a national digital curriculum provider that works with schools across the country to optimize learning opportunities for students.

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