Emergency Crisis Remote Learning is not Virtual Schooling

In the news and on social media, the debate over whether kids should go back to traditional schooling in the classroom continues to escalate. This has been partially due to political posturing from November’s election, however, there continues to be a push to get kids back in school, with advocates claiming that virtual schooling has been an abject failure.

But this conclusion is misleading due to confusion of terminology. According to a recent study of surveyed parents released by EdChoice, “results indicate that students’ experiences with virtual learning in spring 2020 varied markedly according to whether they were enrolled in brick and mortar schools or virtual schools. That outcome does not qualify as a surprise: Virtual schools would be expected to outperform brick and mortar counterparts that were forced to adapt to virtual learning with limited warning. The magnitude of difference, however, is jarring: Respondents were almost 6.5 times more likely to report that their child ‘learned a lot’ in the spring if they were enrolled in a virtual school.”

In addition, a survey of school districts, released this past December by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, notes the following “challenges and barriers” for the school districts as:

  • Balancing at-home schooling commitments with caregiving, employment, and household responsibilities (teachers’ and students’ families)
  • Lack of experience with online learning platforms (teachers, students, and families)
  • Lack of adequate, reliable internet service and/or bottlenecks in bandwidth
  • Lack of consistent communication with students’ families
  • Lack of childcare, for both teachers and for families
  • Getting devices and other materials to students

With this in mind, here are the major reasons why emergency crisis remote learning was a struggle for traditional brick and mortar public schools, while existing virtual public schools were able to continue operating without missing a day due to the pandemic.


Virtual public schools have been teaching children remotely with certificated teachers for over 20 years.  They have used technology and innovative personalized learning, developing best practices with the goal of helping students reach their full potential.

Emergency crisis remote learning was a panic response that resulted in high student-to-teacher ratios, failed attempts to replicate the in-class experience, and offline materials that were not integrated into a seamless instruction model. Unfortunately, at-risk students and students who are traditionally underserved were disproportionately impacted by this sudden change in education.

Data is just starting to show that these students have fallen behind considerably in their academics as a result of this emergency educational model.  This shift to emergency crisis remote leaning also laid bare the technological infrastructure gaps in our country where students and families may not have a computer or reliable internet access to participate in the emergency crisis remote learning.

By contrast, virtual public schools have the tools to equip students with access to a computer and reliable internet to ensure equal access to the educational model. In addition, there were limited onboarding programs to help prepare teachers, parents, and students for the sudden shift to the emergency crisis remote learning model.


Virtual public schools enroll students whose parents and/or students have made the decision that learning in a virtual environment better meets their needs for a variety of reasons. Virtual public schools are a choice for teachers as well.

Conversely, parents and students were compelled to go to emergency crisis remote learning as there was no other option, regardless if learning in a remote environment was appropriate for their child(ren) or family situation.

Learning Platforms

Virtual public schools have a digital curriculum and platform for all grades and subjects where parents, students and teachers are well trained on their use.

On the other hand, many school districts shifted to remote learning using limited online capabilities that were off-the-shelf or free, or a video platform with printouts for support. Students were not given a seamless online learning experience as many were required to navigate different websites with different logon pages and formats, none of which were connected in any way. This, in addition to lack of experience with technology platforms, made things difficult and frustrating.

Teacher Training

Teachers at virtual public schools are specifically state-certified and thoroughly trained in virtual instruction pedagogy.

Most teachers in traditional schools are solely trained in brick-and-mortar pedagogy and classroom management. These teachers were expected to immediately begin teaching remotely in an emergency crisis environment without the proper tools, training and seamless programs to support the model. Therefore, you can understand how this negatively impacted the student experience.

Student Tracking

Virtual public schools have mastered their systems and processes over the years through research, development and data to support best practices that ensure engagement and tracking of students and their academic progress.

In the case of districts who went to emergency crisis remote learning, student tracking has been difficult.  A Bellwether Education Partners report estimates that 3 million children are not attending school since COVID-19 forced schools to close their buildings.

As you can see, there are significant differences between virtual public schools and the emergency crisis remote learning adopted by most brick-and-mortar schools in spring 2020. As the EdChoice study cites, it is not surprising that the district emergency crisis remote programs struggled. It was an option nobody would have dreamed of if it were not for COVID-19, however, let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water when we put all forms of remote learning into one basket.

Don Lee is vice president of government affairs for Stride, Inc., chairman of ALEC’s Private Sector Advisory Council, and former member of the Colorado House of Representatives. He can be reached at


In Depth: Education

An excellent education has long been recognized as key to the American Dream. Unfortunately, the current monopolistic and expensive K-12 education system is failing our students, leaving them unprepared for college, careers, or life. Similarly, our higher education system is leaving students with higher debt burdens and fewer career guarantees…

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