We’re entering the home stretch of the 2020-21 school year, which may mark the end of widespread virtual/distance/remote/at-home/whatever-else-you’d-like-to-call-it learning. While public and private school administrators (and lots of parents, for that matter) may be dancing in the streets (socially distanced and wearing masks, of course) at the thought of kids and teachers back in classrooms for traditional five-day, in-person school weeks, the truth is that those who had already participated in virtual and live schooling will probably react–or already reacted–to this news with nothing more than a shrug.

That’s because not a whole lot changed for those students and teachers. While the rest of the world was panicking and scrambling to come up with some (any!) type of education alternative for kids who were now locked out of school and facing online learning for the first time, parents of virtual students may have looked on in bewilderment, thinking, “What’s the big deal? We’ve been doing this all along.”

Growing Pains for Schools Implementing Virtual Learning

The big deal, obviously, was that public and private schools had not been doing this all along, nor had many been planning for any type of virtual learning down the road. Sure, brick-and-mortar schools have been embracing technology much more readily in recent years. You don’t see chalkboards in too many classrooms anymore…they were replaced by smartboards. Homework isn’t exclusively limited to worksheets and paper these days…there are online programs and supplemental aids that help students practice and study. Some teachers had even been using technology like Google Classrooms, Remind, and Class Dojo (to name a few) already in order to communicate with families and post class materials for students.

But virtual learning? Or live online learning? No.

And, if we’re being honest, it’s hard to see that mindset changing given all the clamor to get kids back into class full time again. Not to mention all the panic about COVID learning loss and students falling so far behind in school that their careers may be impacted. I’m not trying to minimize these arguments–they’re real, and there will certainly be some catching-up for students to do once they’re back in school five days a week (if they’re not already). The point is…families who had already been utilizing virtual and live online schooling never skipped a beat. And that’s such an important concept to embrace going forward–for students, for parents, and for educators.

The Dawn of Virtual Learning (for Public and Private School Students, Anyway)

Think back to March 2020–when COVID-19 started closing everything down, the sense of panic from schools was palpable. Traditional schools simply did not have a backup plan in the event of a long-term emergency…or a global pandemic. This was apparent quite early, as schools scrambled to come up with, first, an emergency plan that would at least offer minimal learning to their students until something better could be created. This approach generally involved some busy work either sent home to students physically or posted online for completion. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

After a few weeks of that, most schools were able to cobble together something better that resembled an actual virtual learning environment. Teachers and students were able to set up makeshift classrooms at home, most families were able to ensure they had the proper equipment and internet access, and schools put together loose schedules that would accommodate every student now learning from home. Definitely an improvement over stage 1, but it still left a lot to be desired, and many parents were unsatisfied with this arrangement. After all, they were thrust into this whole new world of homeschooling their children, which was probably a completely foreign concept to many–understandably so.

Then summer came, and schools had some time to review the last three months of the 2019-2020 school year to determine what worked, what didn’t, and what more could be done. The result was a much-improved scenario (in most cases), where classes had set schedules based around live Zoom or other video-streaming platforms in which students sat in a virtual classroom being instructed in real-time by a teacher. Assignments and exams were provided and mostly administered online, and kids were learning and being assessed again. Many schools also adopted a “hybrid” system, where kids would come in for x number of days each week, usually for a few hours, and then finish the day at home. Schools with this format usually offered a fully remote option for students as well. Perfect? No. But a major upgrade from the spring.

That said, many working parents as well as those who just needed their children back in school for social and emotional purposes weren’t completely satisfied with the setup. When it came time to start discussing and debating the return to the classroom, some couldn’t get their kids out the door fast enough. And, in many cases, for good reason–some kids simply have trouble focusing or learning without a teacher there, in person, to reinforce the material. Other students struggle staring at a computer screen for hours at a time. Yet others need the routine and the social activity to be able to concentrate. Put quite simply, a lot of kids struggled academically, emotionally, and socially during their time at home.

But here’s the thing…many other kids didn’t.

Some kids adapted to the situation just fine. They set up their classroom in a comfortable space, they sat in their desk chairs, and they got to work. The computer setup didn’t bother them, they were okay communicating via Zoom, they were good with online homework, and they took advantage of their own kitchens for lunch and snacks. They got to sleep in a bit longer because there was no bus to catch, they got to see their family during the day and take a bike ride or shoot some hoops while on a break. And they learned. They preferred this type of learning environment to the traditional classroom setting. They thrived, even.

Embracing Virtual Learning

Will some of these kids who succeeded in a difficult learning environment go back to school when it’s fully reopened? Absolutely. Many still missed their friends and the social aspect. But there will be many others who opt to learn this way full time–it’s one of the reasons homeschool enrollment is on the rise and has been since the pandemic began. These parents and students simply may not have realized that there was another way to learn and to thrive in school. Unfortunately it took a terrible virus for them to recognize that virtual learning was the way to go.

And going back to those virtual school vets who had already been teaching and learning this way for years, they’re looking at the “newbies” and nodding their heads in acknowledgement, embracing the virtual school rookies who have seen the light, perhaps with a playful wink and an “I told you so” nod.

Why? Because their schooling did not skip a beat during the pandemic. Aside from everything else outside of school, it was business as usual as far as learning was concerned. There were no disruptions, school closures, worries about the virus getting passed around in school, no masks in class or social distancing–minimal distractions. Of course there are other types of distractions at home–dogs begging to play, parents on work calls, annoying siblings, and of course the siren song of iPads, phones, and video games beckoning. But kids who had been working in a virtual learning environment already learned to put those distractions aside and were as dialed into their schoolwork as they had been pre-COVID.

The Wave of the Future?

There are certainly arguments to be made for in-person schooling as well as virtual and online learning. This isn’t a matter of right or wrong–it simply boils down to what works for students and families. As long as there is a vocal majority who insist upon their children being instructed in a physical classroom, there will be brick-and-mortar schools.

The other side of that coin? As long as there are students who prefer to be taught at home in a virtual classroom, there will be homeschooling and online learning. Unfortunately, it may have taken a deadly pandemic for parents to truly understand which type of environment is best for their child’s education. But it’s probably safe to say that there will be fewer children returning to school on a full-time basis even when that’s the mandate. Even if it’s only a few here and there, some students and their parents have already decided that virtual learning was a seamless experience that yielded positive results in school, and that’s the way they’ll go about education moving forward–and that’s just one reason why it’s such a valuable tool.

Bridgeway offers the best of both online learning and live, virtual classrooms for those who achieved success in that environment. Our online programs allow students to either move at their own pace independently (Self-Paced Classes), participate in a virtual classroom much like the ones they experienced over Zoom during the pandemic (Live Online Classes), or use both textbooks and online learning in tandem (Total Care Blended).

With our Self-Paced Classes for middle school and high school, students take part in engaging lessons through individual online learning paths. We offer more than 200 courses, which allows kids to personalize their learning and tailor their education to their strengths.

In our popular Live Online Classes, for elementary through high school students, our amazing and experienced instructors teach a weekly course in a live, virtual classroom where students can interact with both teachers and fellow students.

Finally, with our Total Care Blended program (for grades 1 through 6), students enjoy fun lessons online but also partake in offline activities, experiments, and projects as well as textbook learning to complement the online component. It’s the best of both worlds.

For more information on any of Bridgeway’s virtual learning or live classroom programs, call us at (800) 863-1474.