K-12 Virtual Schooling, COVID-19, and Student Success | Pediatrics | JAMA Pediatrics | JAMA Network
[Skip to Content]
Sign In
Individual Sign In
Create an Account
Institutional Sign In
OpenAthens Shibboleth
[Skip to Content Landing]
Views 9,182
Citations 0
Viewpoint
August 11, 2020

K-12 Virtual Schooling, COVID-19, and Student Success

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Pediatrics, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville
  • 2Research Center for Educational Technology, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
  • 3Department of Health Outcomes and Biomedical Informatics, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville
JAMA Pediatr. Published online August 11, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.3800

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has significantly affected K-12 education in 2020.1 To protect students and staff, as well as to flatten the infection curve, parents, teachers, and policy makers endorsed and implemented a modified version of homeschooling in the spring in the US and across the globe. Teachers used some form of paper mailings and electronic technology (eg, video conferencing, emailing) to deliver content to students, while parents assumed a coteaching responsibility. Most parents, schools, and teachers were unprepared and untrained to handle the complexities inherent to educating as well as the demands of the technology needed to support these efforts. Although teachers deserve high praise for their rapid response, the educational outcomes were unsatisfying, families were burdened, and most are hesitant to repeat the same format. As government officials attempt to plan for the fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement supporting the return to traditional school as soon as possible to preserve education and socialization while limiting the exacerbation of existing educational disparities for high-risk populations.2

This unprecedented spring transition was an introduction to K-12 online learning for many educators and families. However, K-12 online learning started in the mid-1990s under the broad label of K-12 online and blended instruction (blended refers to the use of both face-to-face and online formats). While more than a billion children worldwide newly experienced this pandemic-related abrupt transition to online education, at least 2% of US students and many more globally had already been participating in online instruction from K-12 online or virtual schools.3 As policy makers, health care professionals, and parents prepare for the fall semester and as public and private schools grapple with how to make that possible, a better understanding of K-12 virtual learning options and outcomes may facilitate those difficult decisions.

Virtual schooling is the delivery of instruction through technology to students physically separated from their teachers. Formal virtual schools exist nationwide at all levels from kindergarten through 12th grade for both general and special education. At the elementary school level, online learning typically requires parental involvement and facilitation. Students at the middle school and high school levels often independently communicate via email, text, telephone, or video for group and individualized learning. Virtual schooling classes are frequently asynchronous, where students and teachers do not have to be online at the same time, allowing for learning anytime and any place.4 Unlike the rapid transfer of face-to-face curriculum into an online format in spring 2020, virtual schools use curriculum designed specifically for online instruction. These schools mostly employ teachers who are experienced online educators and often have online teaching certificates and graduate degrees that specifically include online education. Virtual schools also focus their ongoing professional development around online teaching and learning practices.5

Just like the myriad options that are available for face-to-face schooling in the US, virtual schooling exists in a complex landscape of for-profit, charter, and public options. For example, in Florida, school districts have partnered with Florida Virtual School, a state-funded public entity. Florida Virtual School provides counties with curricula and, in some cases, both curriculum and instruction for K-12 online classes. Students can take 1 or all Florida Virtual School classes channeled through their local public school. This partnership, which includes highly trained online instructors and high-quality curriculum specifically adapted for online delivery, produces similar or better performance when compared with face-to-face high school students on required state end-of-course examinations.6 However, not all virtual schools are created or maintained equally. Parents need to seek reviews and ask for educational outcomes from each virtual school system to assess the quality of the provided education.

Importantly, K-12 virtual schooling is not suited for all students or all families. Individual students need to be motivated, organized, and supported. Differences in their environment, meaning their access to instructional support as well as their internet access, can cause significant variations in student success. Finally, while research is scant, 1 review indicates that specific teaching strategies used in online and blended environments can have a dramatically positive effect on outcomes.7

One of the more recent and promising advantages of virtual K-12 schooling is to meet the educational needs of children with special health care needs. Research supports that online learning can be a more suitable solution than attending a face-to-face school, especially when a student may experience frequent absences due to illness and/or frequent visits for chronic health management. Preliminary work by these authors has found that children who qualified for hospital homebound programs and chose to enroll in a K-12 course performed at least as well, or potentially better, than their nonhospital homebound peers. Moreover, children with special health care needs felt more in control of their education when participating in online learning.8

Many schools are still considering online or blended instruction as a necessary alternative or hybrid as this pandemic evolves. Also, many families may be considering whether some or all of their child’s current or future education could take place online. As such, parents should evaluate the unique strengths and needs of their children by considering the following questions:

  1. Can their child maintain a study schedule and complete assignments with limited supervision?

  2. Would their child be able to ask for help and effectively communicate with a teacher via telephone, text, email, or video?

  3. Does their child have an intrinsic drive to learn skills, acquire knowledge, and complete assignments?

  4. Does their child possess foundational reading, writing, math, and computer literacy skills?

Parents should also learn more about the virtual school options available to them. They should seek to understand the following:

  1. How will student information be shared with their local school district?

  2. Is the virtual school accredited?

  3. How does the virtual school comply with state standards for K-12 educators (eg, licensure)?

  4. Are Universal Design for Learning9 standards incorporated into instructional materials?

  5. What support does the school provide for children with special needs?

  6. What expectations does the school have for parents/caregivers?

  7. What technology is necessary for participation? Who is responsible for providing it?

  8. How will the virtual school facilitate communication about their child’s unique needs?

The pandemic has encouraged many parents to explore educational alternatives, particularly for students who may have health concerns such as those with respiratory disease or who are immunocompromised. With social distancing creating obstacles for traditional education, K-12 online learning may become more mainstream. For more information, consider the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute’s parent guide to online learning10 and the Universal Design for Learning.9 Future studies of the intersection of educational and health outcomes can clarify the effect of education on health and health on education. The COVID-19 pandemic offers a unique challenge for educators, policy makers, and health care professionals to partner with parents to make the best local and individual decisions for children.

Back to top
Article Information

Corresponding Author: Lindsay A. Thompson, MD, MS, General Pediatrics, University of Florida, 1699 SW 16th Ave, Gainesville, FL 32608 (lathom@ufl.edu)

Published Online: August 11, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.3800

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

References
1.
Dibner  KA, Schweingruber  HA, Christakis  DA.  Reopening K-12 schools during the COVID-19 pandemic: a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.   JAMA. Published online July 29, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.14745Google Scholar
2.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Covid-19 planning considerations: guidance for school re-entry. Critical Updates on COVID-19. Published June 25, 2020. Accessed July 13, 2020. https://services.aap.org/en/pages/2019-novel-coronavirus-covid-19-infections/clinical-guidance/covid-19-planning-considerations-return-to-in-person-education-in-schools/
3.
Snapshot 2019: A Review of K-12 Online, Blended, and Digital Learning. Digital Learning Collaborative. Published April 2019. Accessed July 13, 2020. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59381b9a17bffc68bf625df4/t/5cae3c05652dea4d690f5315/1554922508490/DLC-KP-Snapshot2019_040819.pdf
4.
Molnar  A, Miron  G, Elgeberi  N,  et al.  Virtual Schools in the US 2019. National Education Policy Center; 2019.
5.
Moore-Adams  BL, Jones  WM, Cohen  J.  Learning to teach online: a systematic review of the literature on K-12 teacher preparation for teaching online.   Distance Educ. 2016:37(3):333-348. doi:10.1080/01587919.2016.1232158Google ScholarCrossref
6.
Transforming Education Worldwide–One Student at a Time: Annual Report 2017-18. Florida Virtual School. Published December 2018. Accessed July 16, 2020. https://www.flvs.net/docs/default-source/district/flvs-annual-report.pdf?sfvrsn=9a487b2a_18
7.
Pulham  E, Graham  CR.  Comparing K-12 online and blended teaching competencies: a literature review.   Distance Educ. 2018:39(3):411-432. doi:10.1080/01587919.2018.1476840Google ScholarCrossref
8.
Harvey  D, Greer  D, Basham  J, Hu  B.  From the student perspective: experiences of middle and high school students in online learning.   Am J Distance Educ. 2014:28(1):14-26. doi:10.1080/08923647.2014.868739Google ScholarCrossref
9.
CAST. About universal design for learning. Accessed July 29, 2020. http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.XyH3KJ5KjIU
10.
Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. Parent guide to online learning. Accessed July 29, 2020. https://michiganvirtual.org/resources/guides/parent-guide/
Limit 200 characters
Limit 25 characters
Conflicts of Interest Disclosure

Identify all potential conflicts of interest that might be relevant to your comment.

Conflicts of interest comprise financial interests, activities, and relationships within the past 3 years including but not limited to employment, affiliation, grants or funding, consultancies, honoraria or payment, speaker's bureaus, stock ownership or options, expert testimony, royalties, donation of medical equipment, or patents planned, pending, or issued.

Err on the side of full disclosure.

If you have no conflicts of interest, check "No potential conflicts of interest" in the box below. The information will be posted with your response.

Not all submitted comments are published. Please see our commenting policy for details.

Limit 140 characters
Limit 3600 characters or approximately 600 words
    ×