How Online Learning Can Help Schools Retain Students
Families want many options for their children’s education. Online learning allows traditional school systems to expand the range of choices available to their students.
By Jane Gallagher
There were 1.3 million fewer students enrolled in U.S. public schools in fall 2021 than there were before the pandemic began, a drop of nearly 3 percent. Given that educational funding is tied to enrollment, this development has serious implications for the availability of resources in our schools.
Some of this decline may be the result of changing demographics. But much of it can be attributed to families who have opted out of public schools during the pandemic, choosing private schools or homeschooling for their children instead.
On top of these losses, traditional school districts also have lost about a quarter of a million students to charter schools since the emergence of COVID. An analysis by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that charter school enrollment increased by more than 7 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020 as families found other alternatives for their children’s education.
Families have chosen to leave their traditional school system during the pandemic for a variety of reasons. For instance, some weren’t happy with the quality of remote instruction their children were receiving. Some were afraid to send their children back when schools reopened. Whatever their motivation, it’s clear they felt their local school system wasn’t aptly meeting their needs.
Encouraging families to stay or return to their local public schools is a complex challenge that requires a multifaceted approach. Families want options for their children’s education, and these options must be of high quality. Partnering with an experienced provider to offer high-quality online learning is one way traditional schools can give students more options—and it’s an important strategy for attracting and retaining families.
Choices in modality
Although some students fell behind during the shift to remote learning, others thrived. Giving students the flexibility to learn online instead of in-person can serve the needs of many families more effectively.
For instance, when done well, online learning makes education more convenient for students who have health problems or those who feel threatened while at school. It provides an option for students who are immunocompromised or have family members who are at a high risk from COVID. It even provides more autonomy for students and a self-paced learning option for those who are bored by the traditional pace of instruction.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in spring 2022 found that 9 percent of teens would prefer learning fully online when the pandemic is over. Another 18 percent said they would prefer a mix of face-to-face and online instruction. In other words, more than one in four teens would like to have online learning as an option in their schools. As this CNN story makes clear, some families sought other options for their children’s education that specifically included online learning once their local school system returned to in-person instruction.
Partnering with an experienced online learning provider can help school districts expand the options available to families for their children’s education with minimal effort. The ability to choose online instruction as the method in which their children learn could encourage some families to reconsider their decision to leave their local school system—and it could give others a compelling reason to stay.
Choices in learning opportunities
Online learning expands not only the modalities available to students, but the learning opportunities as well.
Many K-12 schools can’t offer the breadth of courses needed to match all students’ interests. They might not have the budget to offer these courses themselves, or they might not be able to find and recruit teachers with the necessary expertise. For example, students in rural areas are less likely to have access to Advanced Placement (AP)® courses—and only half of all high schools offer computer science courses.
Supplemental online courses offer a compelling solution, instantly expanding the range of courses that schools can offer. This allows students to explore subjects they’re curious about from knowledgeable and qualified instructors worldwide, which can be a powerful incentive for families to choose a school system. According to one study, the range of academic opportunities that a school system has to offer is a key factor in where families choose to send their children to school, with researchers writing that parents “were highly influenced by the multitude of opportunities the district of their choice had to offer.”
Expanding choices is critical
Choice is a major watchword in education today. Whether from homeschooling, private schools, charter schools, or even neighboring school systems, public schools face significant competition for the students in their local communities—and the educational funding that follows these students.
To attract and retain families, districts must provide a wide range of options for student learning. This was true even before the pandemic, and it’s especially true now. Providing full-time or supplemental learning options is a key strategy for doing this effectively. It can make districts more attractive for families and is one part of a multifaceted approach to solving the challenge of declining student enrollment.
Jane Gallagher is Vice President of Operations for VHS Learning, a nonprofit organization with more than 26 years of experience providing world-class online learning programs to students and schools everywhere. More than 600 schools around the world take advantage of VHS Learning’s 300+ online high school courses to expand their programs of study.
This article first appeared in eSchool News.