Online learning disappears in schools in Maryland, Virginia, DC

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Online learning, already offered only to students with medical needs in many schools in the DC area, will shrink even more in the Washington region next academic year – and will be completely eliminated in some schools.

School systems throughout Maryland, Virginia and the nation’s capital adopted online learning in the spring of 2020 almost overnight, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Schools spent thousands and hours working on providing laptops, tablets and Internet hotspot devices to families in need.

Students in many places began to return to part-time-in-person learning in the 2020-2021 school year, as vaccines became available to school-age children, and the vast majority of districts reopened full-time in this academic year. Yet, in most places, school officials offered a virtual option, though many required students to prove a documented need, medical or otherwise, to sign up for online courses.

As this school year draws to a close, some school officials announce that online learning will not be an option next year, or will be limited to low numbers. They claim that students are doing poorly in an online environment, a claim supported by abundant data that emerged from the pandemic – including a recent study by McKinsey and Company, which found that children fell behind on average four months in both mathematics and reading during distance learning.

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In Virginia, officials from Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia’s largest school district with about 178,000 students, announced in early March that the school district will no longer offer its virtual program after the end of this school year. Instead, the school district will make “homeschooling” – an education program for students who were unable to leave their homes that existed before the pandemic – available to “students with significant health risks,” Fairfax officials wrote in an email to families.

“Health experts recommend that exceptions to personal instruction should return to pre-pandemic criteria now that school-age children are eligible for vaccination,” officials wrote. “We believe in two things – our schools are safe for all students, and our students are more successful in learning personally.”

Nearby Arlington Public Schools, with about 27,000 students, also decided to end their virtual offerings after this year. The approximately 600 students enrolled in the program will “move back to their home schools,” spokesman Frank Bellavia said.

At a mid-February meeting, school principal Kimberly Graves said the district’s online program, which struggled to get underway in September due to staff shortages, “was missing.” She said virtual students struggle more academically than students who learn personally.

And in Prince William County, school officials announced Wednesday that the district will only offer 1,000 places in an online learning program for K-8 students next year. To enroll, students must show that they have “a health condition associated with a weakened immune system” or are siblings of a student with a health condition.

Other students who meet strict academic requirements, proving that they have “above average levels of motivation, self-regulation and independent work habits,” can apply and will participate in a lottery for the remaining places, left over after students with medical conditions have been accepted. Prince William has about 2,000 virtual students, representing about 2 percent of its students.

However, the school systems in Alexandria and Loudoun both plan to continue offering online learning. Loudoun County Public Schools spokesman Wayde Byard said Friday that 270 elementary school students and 226 high school students – out of the district’s 81,000 – are enrolled in virtual school. Byard said the school board has decided to expand its online program at the elementary, middle and high school levels into the academic year 2022-2023.

In Alexandria City Public Schools, which enrolls about 16,000 students, virtual administrator Izora Everson said the district will continue to offer online programming to families who prefer next year.

Everson said about 500 students participated in virtual learning this school year and that officials expect the number to drop next year, “as covid-related concerns decline.”

Everson added: “Schools will review information from families requesting virtual learning to determine if their students have the academic status to participate and succeed in virtual learning in the coming school year.”

Enrollment dropped and dropped again in schools that operated virtually

Maryland’s Prince George’s Public Schools, meanwhile, will offer a full-time online academy for its seventh to 12th graders next year. But the program is not intended for students who are nervous about learning personally because of covid-19, according to the school system. Instead, it is intended for “students who want to make online learning their approach to education during their K-12 careers,” according to the school system’s website.

In DC, the public school system offers a virtual academy for students who meet certain medical requirements. Some charter schools also offer virtual slots.

The city said no decision on virtual offerings has been made next year.

Nicole Asbury and Perry Stein contributed to this report.

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