Brooke Tindal, 15, used to commute 16 miles from her home in Queens to her elementary and middle schools in Brooklyn, waking up at 5:50 a.m. every morning to get there.
She realized how much time that ate up in her day when schools were forced to go remote during the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, she had more time to work on projects for her favorite art class, and was less exhausted because she didn’t have to lug a backpack around, especially after her long commute. She felt more productive than during in-person school day when she would always be “waiting for students to finish so we can move on already,” she says.
When New York City ended remote schooling in 2021, she opted for a year of homeschooling instead of going back. That's when her mother learned about a new option: NYC’s first public virtual high school. She enrolled her daughter in its pilot freshman class for the 2022-2023 school year.
“It's great for me to just stay in one place and just do my work at my own pace,” Tindal told TIME in a video chat about a month before she starts her sophomore year on Sep. 7.
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New York City, home to more than a million students in its school system, is the biggest school district in the U.S.—and now allows any student to enroll virtually in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dubbed Virtual Innovators Academy, there are 17 teachers for about 200 students enrolled in the 2023-2024 school year for sophomore and freshman years. Each year, another grade level will be added, and the school's funding comes from the city and state, just like other public schools. Students meet in-person for required state exams and for monthly social gatherings like arcade games at Dave & Busters or seeing a Broadway show. But many of the most popular extracurriculars are done from home, says Virtual Innovators Academy principal Terri Grey, like esports and flying drones.
The pandemic ushered in one of the most disruptive crises in education in the nation’s history. The statistics of pandemic-related learning loss are grim, with big drops in history and civics test scores and slower than average growth in reading and math. But for some students like Tindal, the abrupt shift to at-home schooling provided unexpected benefits they're loath to give up with a forced return to the classroom. Teachers and administrators nationwide told TIME a litany of reasons students prefer virtual classes. Some of the students concentrate better with a later school start time. Some want to be able to take advantage of other educational opportunities in the area like going to a museum at off-peak hours. Some need to juggle jobs and coursework. Some have lingering health concerns. And it isn't just in New York: school districts in Utah, Georgia, California, and elsewhere have also launched permanent virtual schools.
Concerns remain about the effectiveness of virtual school. Critics worry about the lack of in-person social interaction during crucial developmental years, and about whether teachers can educate as effectively through a screen. But administrators behind the nation’s burgeoning virtual schools say they have studied what works and what doesn’t from remote-schooling during the pandemic when setting up these communities. Every morning, students at Virtual Innovators Academy meet in small groups with a teacher advisor to talk about how they're doing and give them time to wake up in the morning and connect with other classmates. There's less emphasis on multiple choice tests, which proved harder to administer online, and more emphasis on research projects. “Too many people judge virtual instruction as if it were the emergency roadside online instruction that happened as a result of the pandemic," says Anthony Godfrey, who helps oversee the K-12 Jordan Virtual Learning Academy in Utah. "This is something very different. This is a carefully thought out, very intentional way of providing a unique and effective means of instruction.”
Virtual schooling was largely born out of health and safety concerns. New York City first launched Virtual Innovators Academy to protect students still vulnerable to COVID-19 after public schools announced an in-person return in the fall of 2021. "There were still a lot of students who are immunocompromised or their families were, and they could not return to the building, and so it really necessitated this permanent option," says Grey. Even before the pandemic, many schools offered a remote-learning option for students with medical conditions or chronic illnesses. Some of the new virtual schools, like the one Chicago Public Schools runs, still only admit those types of students.
But administrators soon realized the option could benefit a wider population. "A lot of parents really appreciated the flexibility for their families and students," Grey says. "There are some students who really thrive learning at home remotely." She says Virtual Innovators Academy, which has a media and tech focus and is structured to help students land internships managing companies' social media platforms, has become a haven for neurodiverse and introverted kids.
Teachers and parents are finding virtual school a plus for other types of students, as well. Students who are serious about sports find virtual instruction can better accommodate their training schedules. Jude Julien, a science teacher at Virtual Innovators Academy, allows his students to submit homework at the time of day when they concentrate best, which can mean the wee hours of the morning for night owls. “At like six o'clock in the morning, my inbox is already filled with assignments,” he says. For shier students, he counts participation not only from speaking aloud in class, but also from typing comments in the chat function during a video call or submitting an audio message outside of the virtual class time. There's some evidence it's working: Virtual Innovators Academy boasts a 96% attendance rate, and Grey says attendance rates for some students went up 20%, compared to when they went to middle school in-person.
In some cases, virtual school fits better with parents' schedules. In Utah's Jordan School District, some virtual school students have parents who can work remotely and want to travel, while other teens have to get jobs alongside their schoolwork to help support their families. At the K-8 virtual school in Coweta County, Georgia in the Atlanta area, many parents prefer to see what their kids are learning so they can help them with homework at night.
“The majority of students are just a typical kid, and their parents have made this choice," says Rebecca Minerd, principal of the K-8 virtual school in Georgia. "It works well for them."
But for all the proponents of virtual schooling, there are critics who worry about what's being lost behind the computer screen.
Nathan Holbert, a researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University, who studies virtual learning, is skeptical about whether the ed tech tools can foster engaging group discussions. “I wander and I listen as students are talking and I might hear something and say, ‘Oh, that's really interesting. Can you say more about that?’ and jump into the conversation and then leave and go check out another group," he says, describing what it’s like to be a professor when students are working in small groups in-person. "In Zoom rooms, you can't really do that.” Unstructured, spontaneous conversations are often the most memorable parts of school, he argues; students might work side-by-side, help each other with homework, and also socialize in between classes. In virtual school, “How do you create space for bumping into somebody in the hall?” Holbert wonders. “I don't know that you can.”
Holbert and other experts also worry that virtual schools could create an equity issue, dividing kids who can afford to have the latest technology and a home with a quiet, tidy place to work and those who have to go into school to have access to computers, high-speed internet, and privacy. In a 2020 survey of public school teachers nationwide, 84% of teachers in affluent districts said most of their students were participating in virtual learning, compared to 51% of teachers in low-income districts. Census data showed roughly half of the lowest-income parents had a device that a child could use for school.
Even for the kids who have chosen a permanent virtual option, in-person hangouts are key. When asked to share the most memorable moment of her first year of virtual high school, Tindal, the rising sophomore at Virtual Innovators Academy, mentions celebrating her 15th birthday at a restaurant with classmates—some of whom she was meeting for the first time.
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