Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.
Over the past three years, learning technology has undergone a profound transformation. As schools transitioned from emergency remote learning to a permanent mix of virtual, hybrid, and in-person education, school districts across the country have taken steps to ensure students are fully supported no matter how — and where — they are learning.
By creating an integrated learning environment, districts are maximizing the benefits of virtual learning to break down barriers to access, enhance flexibility, and boost student success. I’ve been fortunate to work with thousands of school districts across the country that have implemented a variety of digital learning solutions, and I’ve witnessed how school districts are effectively improving academic performance while keeping students engaged, on-task, and learning.
Keep learning flexible
The 10,000 students in Kershaw County School District, a small district in South Carolina, have had access to virtual learning since 2018. As a result, students can move seamlessly from in-person to virtual learning as needed, creating a unified experience. Regardless of modality, the support services discussed below are what matter most to student success.
Former Superintendent Shane Robbins launched the 1-to-1 blended learning program to give students an active role in their education. When districts across the country had to switch to emergency remote learning, KCSD was more prepared than most because of its early investments in technology. As students began to return to in-person learning in 2021, some students chose to remain 100% virtual. Robbins and other Kershaw leaders recognized the need to keep learning flexible in order to support students’ and families’ individual choices.
The district launched the Kershaw Virtual Academy as a way to enable students to learn in the way they want, from where they want. Students can learn in person but also have options for synchronous and asynchronous virtual learning. By using the same technology and curriculum for all students, every learner, regardless of their physical location, has equal access to a high-quality education.
KCSD also elevates academic support by connecting each virtual learner with a Success Coach from Edmentum who provides one-on-one guidance online throughout a student’s time at Kershaw. Focused on building meaningful relationships with students, these coaches identify students’ personal barriers to learning and help them develop strategies, such as time management skills and effective study habits, to overcome any challenge.
Support virtual student wellness
Across the country in California, Silver Valley Unified School District (USD) is taking a different approach to supporting virtual and in-person students. Among the 2,000 students in the rural district, more than 75% are from military families. Students move often so the district offers in-person and virtual learning to provide consistency for students.
Like many districts, Silver Valley USD students are experiencing higher rates of mental health challenges. In particular, the district wanted to ensure students participating in virtual learning remained engaged. To better support students, the district created a new role, director of student health and wellness. The primary focus of this role is to identify students in need of care and provide additional support services. The added support services give in-person and remote students a space to share challenges. This is especially helpful for remote students who might otherwise be more disconnected from Silver Valley USD educators.
Adjust student interventions for virtual learning
In addition to more counseling support, Silver Valley USD also changed how it checks in on virtual learners to ensure they are as engaged with the coursework as their peers in the classroom. When K-8 students log in to the online platform to complete assignments or do their homework, their teacher can reinforce a connection in real time and identify any potential learning issues.
Before the program was implemented, students only completed assignments asynchronously. While there are no requirements for students to sign in at a given time, the program allows teachers to better assess students’ engagement levels and to reinforce a connection in real time. When a student is absent or unengaged, teachers check in with parents. Teachers are coached to ask questions that focus on the student’s and the family’s well-being, as well as check to see if the family needs any support. The district provides teachers with a list of free and low-cost resources, including virtual and in-person counseling services, so educators can easily offer help when a family needs it.
As districts continue to transition out of emergency remote learning, it is evident that what started as a necessary, short-term reaction to the pandemic has become, when implemented correctly, an integral part of the learning experience. Our company’s study of virtual programs across different demographics found that online learners in socioeconomically disadvantaged districts improved their graduation rate by 28.6%. In rural communities, students with access to virtual learning demonstrated significantly higher rates of successful course completion – up to 70%.
Sustaining virtual and hybrid learning is critical to continuing to meet students’ needs and ensuring they thrive. Districts like Silver Valley Unified School District and Kershaw County School District are leading the way. With greater investments and by adopting a few key strategies, other districts can certainly follow and help build new pathways to success for students.
Jamie Candee is CEO of Edmentum, a digital curriculum provider, and has extensive experience in educational technology, private equity and policy. Read more about the Edmentum study of virtual programs in different demographics.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.