Cover: The Rise of Virtual Schools

The Rise of Virtual Schools

Selected Findings from the Third American School District Panel Survey

Published Aug 30, 2021

by Melissa Kay Diliberti, Heather L. Schwartz

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The onset of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has prompted school districts in the United States to offer remote schooling options for their K–12 students. The authors of this report fielded the third American School District Panel (ASDP) survey in June 2021 to assess districts' plans to offer both temporary and more-lasting remote instruction options starting in fall 2021. The key ASDP findings presented in this report draw on the responses of 292 district leaders after weighting those responses to make them nationally representative.

Results from the June 2021 ASDP survey suggest that K–12 remote instruction will outlast the pandemic. Remote instruction can be delivered in various forms, however, and the survey questions delved into three: a temporary option for fully remote instruction in fall 2021, fully online courses, and standalone virtual schools. The authors explore differences in districts' pre-pandemic offerings and plans to offer multiple remote instructional modes in the 2021–2022 school year by district type.

Virtual schools have had the most marked growth. Only 3 percent of surveyed districts ran a virtual school before the pandemic began. Since the pandemic began, however, the number of districts running virtual schools has grown ninefold. And nearly one-quarter of surveyed districts that had no plans to operate a virtual school in the 2021–2022 school year had at least some interest in operating a virtual school sometime in the future.

Key Findings

Districts' interest in virtual schools is high across all district types

  • One-quarter of surveyed districts plan to run a virtual school in 2021–2022, which is a ninefold increase from the pre-pandemic level.
  • Almost half of urban districts plan to run a virtual school in 2021–2022, and most of these virtual schools started running only after the pandemic began.
  • Among the subset of districts not operating a virtual school in 2021–2022, nearly one-quarter of them are interested in running a virtual school.

One in five district leaders said that parental demand for a fully remote schooling option in 2021–2022 is strong

  • The largest proportions of leaders perceived this demand in suburban districts and districts with a majority of students of color.

As of June 2021, district leaders expected low participation in temporary partial or fully remote instructional options in fall 2021

  • Virtually all districts (97 percent) planned to offer a fully in-person option in fall 2021. The other 3 percent will offer solely hybrid instruction.
  • However, 14 percent of districts planned to offer some type of temporary partial or fully remote option to at least some students in fall 2021.

Only 10 percent of surveyed districts are newly offering fully online courses in 2021–2022

  • This is in addition to the 26 percent that already did so pre-pandemic and will continue to do so in 2021–2022.

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The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For this document, different permissions for re-use apply. Please refer to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation section on our permissions page.

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