By Roberta M. Marcus, consultant in residence, Pennsylvania School Boards Association; past president, Parkland School District (retired); accredited school director leader (retired)
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the education landscape on its head and put the spotlight on alternative methods to educate students, including online learning programs. When school district buildings were unexpectedly forced to close in mid-March because of the pandemic, they were faced with the unprecedented responsibility of adapting all in-person instruction to a remote format for every student in a matter of weeks.
At the start of the school year this fall, online learning turned out to be quite different in our schools. It is important the public understands the substantial efforts made by school districts to create robust and effective online learning programs that provide each student with a quality education.
For parents and students who prefer online learning, more than 90% of Pennsylvania school districts offer an online learning program. These established online learning programs were available years before the pandemic. District programs are designed to provide a more seamless and effective learning experience for the student. In addition, unlike cyber charter schools, school districts are required to ensure 100% of the teachers in their online programs are state certified.
Students enrolled in a school district’s online program also retain access to the district’s extensive virtual and in-person curricula and courses, including career and technical education. Those students can also continue participation in all sports, co-curricular activities, clubs, field trips, and social events same as students attending the district’s in-person instructional program.
School districts deserve credit for implementing a remote learning model for much less than the $12,600 they spend on average to send a non-special education student to a cyber charter school. This achievement of running lean and efficiently is one measure of success, but equally, if not more important, is the quality of the education. On average, cyber charter school proficiency rates on state assessments are more than 24% lower than traditional public school rates and cyber charter school 4-year graduation rates are more than 33% lower than traditional public school graduation rates.
When put to the ultimate test of a pandemic, Pennsylvania’s school districts have answered the call. They developed solutions and alternatives to keep our students safe while providing quality education. School districts have been quick to adapt to changing guidance from state and federal officials and simultaneously respond to changes in local pandemic-related health conditions. Our school districts remain the foundation of our system of education in Pennsylvania, even as more parents explore online learning options. As parents navigate the many challenges of selecting their child’s education model, I urge you to keep in mind the significant advances, benefits, and positive outcomes of school district online learning programs.