So far this school year, 14 Dallas County schools closed down at least temporarily because of COVID-19. A report in the Dallas Morning News cites a lack of clear guidelines and other inconsistencies for the closures.
“The majority of policies are vague and don’t stipulate specific numbers that would trigger a campus closure,” the report says. “Officials at most districts that closed a school said the main reasons they did so was because of a widespread need to quarantine or a related staff or substitute shortage.”
Here’s what we know: Texas was ill-prepared for the pandemic and the subsequent closing of schools. And we still are. The explosive growth in demand for virtual schooling met a supply intentionally constricted through state policy.
As virtual education serves more students longer, the focus must shift from emergency response to creating a more sustainable, quality product that will meet the needs of Texas students in a changing landscape.
Fortunately, we have a path forward. Parents want—and many children need—options when it comes to education. Some kids thrive online; some simply can’t get the education they need that way. So Texas must continue to offer both. Our most recent polling shows that Texans strongly support this; 74% say Texas school districts should have the authority to decide whether or not to provide virtual education options. And 84% say if a school district decides to not provide virtual education, parents should have the ability to enroll their child in a school district that does provide a virtual education option.
But the online model must be improved—not just for those students who do well at it now, but also for future closures, like those 14 schools in Dallas County that went fully online at some point this year.
Last spring, as COVID-19 began to spread, the state’s challenges in shifting to virtual instruction were exacerbated by several structural weaknesses within the Texas Virtual Schools Network. Before the pandemic, only eight independent and charter districts around the state (out of approximately 1,200) were authorized to offer a fulltime virtual education curriculum, and all of them were prevented from offering services between kindergarten and second grade.
These limitations in virtual education infrastructure came home to roost during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Texas faced a particularly daunting endeavor in moving to online education. The state virtual network was not capable of handling a sudden influx of students, leading to districts scrambling to create their own virtual education infrastructure, often from scratch.
Other states had more success. Florida, in particular, had developed a more robust virtual education network and was able to quickly scale its system from a few thousand students to 2.7 million, allowing for a smooth transition to online learning.
There are other models we can look to. Here are just two:
New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School considers parental involvement to be of the utmost importance; in fact, students may not enroll in a course until a virtual meeting with parents is conducted. According to US News & World Report analyses, drawn from state-administered assessment data, 92% of VLACS students were proficient or above in reading, and 67% were proficient or above in math. Both scores greatly outperformed the New Hampshire state average.
Texas Tech University’s K-12 offering, TTU K-12, is an entirely virtual program that serves nearly 1,600 full-time students around the world. TTU K-12 also serves thousands more through part-time and supplemental programs, as well as an extensive credit-by-examination system. The program is self-paced and appears consistently in rankings of the premier virtual schools in the United States.
There are many more examples, which can be seen in our report here. But it will take some legislative changes—and legislators’ commitment—to enable the best elements of these models on a statewide basis.
Virtual education will be an integral component of the Texas education landscape for the duration of the COVID19 pandemic and beyond. Student and district circumstances, health-related and otherwise, will necessitate increased structural flexibility.
A more robust virtual system can better serve the families who prefer virtual education for the long term, equip Texas to offer parents more high-quality choices, and prepare the state more effectively for the next pandemic or emergency.