Online learning going away in Virginia and Maryland schools

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Online learning, already offered only to students with medical needs in many D.C.-area schools, will shrink even further in the Washington region next academic year — and will be eliminated entirely in some schools.

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

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

As this school year draws to a close, however, some school officials are announcing that online learning will not be an option next year, or will be capped at low numbers. They are arguing that students fare poorly in an online environment, an assertion supported by copious data that emerged from the pandemic — including a recent McKinsey and Co. study that found children, on average, fell behind four months in both mathematics and reading during remote schooling.

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In Virginia, officials with Fairfax County Public Schools, the state’s largest school district with roughly 178,000 students, announced in early March that the district will no longer offer its virtual program after the end of this school year. Instead, the school district will make “homebound instruction” — an education program for students 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.

“Community health experts advise that exemptions to in-person instruction should return to pre-pandemic criteria now that school-age children are eligible for vaccination,” officials wrote. “We believe two things — our schools are safe for all students and our students are more successful learning in person.”

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

At a mid-February meeting, chief of school support Kimberly Graves said the district’s online program, which struggled to get off the ground in September due to staffing shortages, was “falling short.” She said virtual students are struggling more academically than students learning in person.

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

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

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

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

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

Everson added, “Schools will review information from families who request virtual learning to determine if their students have the academic standing to participate and succeed in virtual learning for the coming school year.”

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

In D.C., 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 a decision has not been made about virtual offerings next year.

Nicole Asbury and Perry Stein contributed to this report.

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