The pandemic has led to a re-evaluation of alternative forms of Florida education
As the 2020-21 school year approached and the COVID-19 virus raged, Julianne Sanchez decided her two daughters — the younger is immuno-compromised — should learn from home.
The charter school the girls had attended, like many schools, had struggled with the shift to remote learning as the state shut down in March 2020. Sanchez enrolled her two girls in Florida Virtual School (FLVS), a statewide public school that’s been offering online classes for more than two decades. Payton was entering sixth-grade, and Riley second.
“I can’t think of a downside,” Sanchez says, a year and a half following the switch.
The Sanchezes were among a flood of families that went remote during the 2020-21 academic year, doubling Florida Virtual School’s enrollment to more than 12,600 full-time students. And even as Florida’s traditional brick-and-mortar schools have largely returned to their pre-pandemic operations, FLVS’ enrollment remains high. The school projects a full-time enrollment of more than 11,000 K-12 students this academic year. Part-time enrollment is up as well, with 173,768 students taking at least one class to supplement in-person classes at other schools between July and December 2021 — a 4% increase over that same period in 2019.
Sanchez intended to re-enroll Payton and Riley in the charter school they’d attended before the pandemic, but the sisters didn’t want to unplug. “I liked the aspect of being really self-guided,” Payton says. “I could just go at my own pace, which is a faster pace.” She’s a driven student who aspires to an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy and intends to study aeronautical engineering.
Payton is glad to shed social pressures and accelerate her studies; Riley prefers independent learning. The flexibility offered by the virtual school enables both girls to better manage the demands of participating in competitive cheerleading. Sanchez also reports that Payton, who is shy and prone to test anxiety, blossomed with the one-on-one attention she got from her FLVS teachers. “Her history teacher last year was an absolute godsend,” Sanchez says, recounting the instructor’s dedication to coaching and connecting with her daughter. Payton reports feeling a lot calmer, with these positive relationships and control over her busy schedule. “When I was in regular school, I would stress out. I would go to bed, but I couldn’t sleep,” she says.
The family’s experience echoes what FLVS President and CEO Louis Algaze hears from many parents and students. “I think the families decided what they had experienced was a positive thing,” Algaze says. “But I’m talking about true online learning, not pandemic emergency learning.”
That’s an important distinction. FLVS was designed for remote instruction from the start. During the pandemic, teachers in traditional schools didn’t have the digital infrastructure in place to do much beyond offer online lectures for those students who bothered to sign on. In an October 2020 Pew Research Center survey that queried parents about pandemic-related academic lapses, 65% of those whose children studied remotely feared their students were falling behind.
Algaze acknowledges such challenges to virtual instruction but says his school is structured to guard against lackluster performance. While the state pays traditional public schools on a per-student basis, it pays FLVS only for students who pass. That model puts teachers on alert for lagging student performance and spurs innovation, says Algaze.
“The students are being pushed toward success, not just being pushed to the end of the year. They are really learning the material,” he says.
Instruction is offered through different modalities — text, audio, video and teacher-led instruction. Specialized software enables FLVS to pinpoint student weaknesses so they can revisit what they did not master. FLVS students generally score above the state average on Florida standardized tests and above the national average on measures such as Advanced Placement exams. The school’s demographics mirror those of the state’s public-school enrollment in race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomics, and special needs.
School districts outside Florida are embracing digital learning as well. A 2021 study by Rand Corp., The Rise of Virtual Schools, found that one-quarter of surveyed districts planned to run a virtual school during this academic year, a ninefold increase over pre-pandemic levels. Another study, by the investment group Reach Capital, reported that 68% of the nation’s 200 largest school districts intended to offer virtual academies in 2021.
The rising interest — and financial opportunity — prompted FLVS, which has served students beyond Florida for many years, to rebrand and expand its out-of-state services, launching FlexPoint Education Cloud last October. The service offers more than 180 digital courses in K-12, along with teacher and administrator training, professional development and related consulting services. Profits from FlexPoint supplements the funding FLVS receives from the state and will be used for services such as curriculum development and enhanced software.
In the pre-pandemic 2019-20 academic year, FLVS collected $18.5 million from its out-of-state contracts. FlexPoint brought in $50 million in 2020-21 as 160 new schools and districts sought help creating virtual programs. This year, FlexPoint is expected to generate $40 million.
“This partnership has allowed us to accelerate the diversification of our course offerings,” says Ryan Fuller, director of Cobb Virtual Academy, part of the Cobb County (Georgia) School District, which has contracted with Florida Virtual since 2015. “We have researched many other content providers, and FlexPoint is truly the leader in quality and flexible delivery options.”
Algaze foresees FLVS remaining on the leading edge of emerging educational trends: School choice, parent involvement and a demand for alternative education forms.
“The pandemic has shown that there’s a right way to do online education and emphasized what educators already know — that no student learns the same way, and we need to continue to adapt and evolve to address those needs,” he says. “With more than 20 years of experience teaching students online, I am very much looking forward to our team of educators providing even more parents, students, teachers, administrators, schools and beyond with the tools and resources they need to drive student success.”