What Will Happen to the Education System When the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Over?
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What Will Happen to the Education System When the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Over?

While virtual learning may surge, hybrid models with in-person elements may work best.

For the remainder of the school year, online learning is the new normal for most schools across the country. The coronavirus pandemic has caused nearly all schools to close and has created a captive, nationwide audience of families interested in exploring alternative online platforms to keep their kids occupied and on track.

Online groups such as Learn Everywhere were quickly created and immediately attracted thousands of members who are sharing resources with each other, from online music classes for young children to free engineering lessons to empanada recipes.

While this could be a revolutionary moment in K-12 for virtual learning and homeschooling, it’s hard to know at this point. Here are three possibilities for what comes next.

Substantial numbers of students leave in-person schools and begin a virtual or home-based education full-time

Many families will be relieved to send their kids back to brick-and-mortar schools once things return to normal, but it’s possible that a significant number of families who have been exposed to online learning for the first time will find that virtual school works for them. Online charter schools or home-based programs might see a surge in enrollment next year. That wouldn’t be terribly surprising, considering that over the last decade, both full-time and part-time online learning has grown exponentially.

Prior to the COVID-19 shutdowns, more than 2.7 million K-12 students were using digital classes at some capacity and more than 300,000 were enrolled in fully-online statewide and charter schools, and there were more than a million homeschoolers, who often use online curricular supports.

Mass exposure to good virtual alternatives could entice many new families. After all, research indicates elevated school-related stress levels in teens, high rates of fear for student safety, common concerns that one’s kids are either falling behind or not being challenged enough and low levels of satisfaction with public schools. Trying out virtual schools could convince many American families to take the plunge and leave traditional classrooms.

Online education and homeschooling remain only marginally influential

Under this scenario, while a small number of students may choose to stay virtual moving forward, most will return to traditional classrooms. While virtual charter schools are available to some, most students are currently using online services provided by their public or private schools. But these options will likely be rolled back or eliminated once coronavirus risks subside.

After all, homeschooling or virtual public schooling is not a viable option for a large proportion of American families. That could be because they can’t afford to provide adequate supervision, they don’t feel equipped, or maybe it’s just not the right fit for their kids.

Moreover, while there are certainly many individual success stories with virtual public schools, some early research shows mixed academic outcomes and high attrition rates — evidence that may lead many families to conclude that it’s too much of a risk.

Hybrid schooling becomes more widespread in every sector

An overlooked possibility, and the one I believe to be most likely, is that every school sector uses online education where it works well and serves as an effective supplement to in-person learning. Hybrid models combine in-person elements with online learning and operate under a nontraditional schedule, where kids learn at home for a portion of the week. For more than a decade, hybrid models have been utilized by traditional school districts, private schools, and homeschool communities.

And these schools have been innovating in all sorts of ways. They’re specializing in vocational pathways with apprenticeships and hands-on robotics training, and catering to specific groups such as disadvantaged and special education students by emphasizing counseling and one-on-one tutoring.

Under this scenario, there’s no mass pivot from one schooling sector to another. Instead, there’s an across-sector integration of virtual components driven by parental demand. Families who don’t want fully virtual or home-based education will recognize certain efficiencies and flexibilities that the virtual approach brings, and schools in every sector will have to adapt. Rigid government requirements around curriculum and school structure will simply have to be loosened.

The roles of teachers in a hybrid model could also change considerably. Relying on online curriculum guides for core material could allow teachers to pivot from heavy lesson preparation to content reinforcement and individualized attention in person. Distance teaching can provide a low-cost avenue for advanced content instructors to reach many different students and for schools to offer a wider range of courses.

For parents, students, teachers and administrators alike, the coronavirus has created an understandably anxiety-ridden time. But if there is any good news, it’s that the current situation has jolted the imaginations of families everywhere as to how education could look different from standard schooling and be better tailored to the needs of each child.

A version of the column previously appeared in The Washington Times. 

Christian Barnard is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation.